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Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation

Monday, July 6, 1998 - 20:27
Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). x + 224pp. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-231-10816-8). $16.50 (Pap; ISBN: 0-231-10817-6).

Reviewed by
Dennis Berthold
Texas A&M University

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1992), Toni Morrison calls for greater attention to the place of race and slavery in classic American literature: "The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination" (5). Teresa Goddu's book answers that call by grounding nineteenth-century American gothicism in the history and politics of American racialism. In America, Goddu argues, the gothic stands as an elaborate code for slavery, race, and oppression, including the oppression by the new capitalist marketplace and its consequence, rampant literary commercialism. Goddu's fundamental aim is to historicize the gothic, to situate it within a particular social and political milieu and show how "American gothic literature criticizes America's national myth of new-world innocence by voicing the cultural contradictions that undermine the nation's claim to purity and equality" (10). By rendering Julia Kristeva's notion of the "abject" (or "horror of being") into concrete, historical narratives, American gothic tales expose the American nightmare even as they mask it with the modes of popular fiction and fantasy. Goddu moves the gothic from the margins to the center of American literary history, and to the already considerable literature studying the gothic's psychological role adds an argument for its social function.

Separate chapters focus on St. Jean de Crèvecoeur's famous description of the caged slave in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Charles Brockden Brown's metaphors of a diseased economy in Arthur Mervyn (1800), John Neal's images of Indian-Anglo savagery in Logan (1822), Edgar Allan Poe's overt racialization of the gothic in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Nathaniel Hawthorne's and Louisa May Alcott's contrasting adaptations of the gothic to a marketplace dominated by sentimental literature in The Blithedale Romance (1852) and Alcott's ghost stories, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and their differing appropriations of gothic devices to provide "haunting" memories of slavery. Throughout, Goddu corrects earlier critics who either ignored race or marginalized it, along with the gothic. Her best example is Poe, whom F. O. Matthiessen and others treated as a Southern regionalist in order to isolate the racialism that, Goddu believes, was central to American literary nationalism. Less persuasively, she finds Neal's exclusion from the canon proof that "The Indian and the gothic imagery—'dark and gloomy mythologies'—associated with him are viewed as antagonistic to American literature's prospects and principles" (72). Rather than producing regeneration through violence, as Richard Slotkin argues, the gothic reveals American innocence as a thin veil hiding the ineluctable corruption and degeneracy at the new nation's heart. Only by denying the gothic's presence and power could critics construct an American canon consonant with American ideals.

Most broadly, Goddu's book takes its place in the renascent historicism in American studies to counter the tradition of psychological and formalist critics who focused on American literature as "a world elsewhere," in Richard Poirier's phrase, a world that had more to do with individual eccentricities and bizarre fantasies than social realities, a world of art rather than life, of self rather than society, of personality rather than politics. The whole tradition of contrasting the American "romance" to the British "novel" rests on this analysis, and contributes powerfully to the hoary myth of American exceptionalism. American critics, by identifying the gothic with the romance, have defused the gothic's powerful symbolic unmasking of racial atrocity and commercial dehumanization. Goddu draws on the work of Joan Dayan, Dana Nelson, and an astonishing range of other contemporary critics to counter gothicists like Leslie Fiedler who privileged the psychological over the political and largely ignored social realities.

Even though the racial argument frames the discussion, I found this the least original part of the book. Coding "gothic" as "racial," so that the "power of blackness," for example, connotes fears of slave revolt, risks a linguistic circularity that evades the very historical conditions it seeks to expose. If every instance of "black," "dark," "shade," or even "slave" inexorably connotes American chattel slavery, racial themes (let alone gothicism) become so omnipresent that we forget that many Americans were truly blind to race, and much popular literature deliberately sought to escape social realities (try to find racial themes in Joseph Rodman Drake's "The Culprit Fay," one of the most popular poems of the 1830s). Such willful denial of social realities (both in the literature and the critical tradition that canonized it) strikes me as at least as culturally significant as the overt depictions of racial oppression that have characterized American literature from the beginning, for instance William Bradford's description of the Pequot massacre in his history Of Plimoth Plantation (1620–1647), or Philip Freneau's vividly gothic anti-slavery poem "To Sir Toby" (1792), neither of which Goddu mentions. Yet these and many similar works are staples in American literary anthologies precisely because they dramatically illustrate the dark side of American culture. Substituting metaphors and generic codings for direct discourse valuably extends racial themes in literature, but it risks robbing them of their political urgency and historical force.

More provocative for me are Goddu's linkages of gothic with the emergent capitalistic marketplace, particularly in her subtle and double-edged readings of the Hawthorne-Alcott texts. Making good use of biographical and cultural context, Goddu prefaces this discussion with a brilliant but too-brief analysis of female statuary, finding in such sentimentalized works as Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave (1844) an eroticized and commodified feminine that opposed the domestic ideal of the "angel in the house." As a medium that unveils femininity only to enclose it within the male gaze and an unfeeling commercialism, such statues embody the same paradoxes as Hawthorne's veiled ladies, who participate in the marketplace only if they are (disingenuously) separated from it by a theatrical veil. As a gothic device, the veil signifies the "magical world of the marketplace" and becomes a key image contrasting Hawthorne's failure with Alcott's success in satisfying their audience's demands for sentimental fiction (119). Although Goddu perpetuates the overemphasis on Hawthorne's reaction to the "mob of scribbling women," she draws a telling contrast between male and female authors' abilities to accommodate the shifting tastes of the reading public.

Curiously, Goddu's approach reinforces American exceptionalism by treating slavery, racialism, and capitalism as strictly American phenomena, an exclusionary practice that implicitly argues for a "gothic" that develops independently of British (or other) generic and social practices. American writers knew better. Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851) locates class oppression in seventeenth-century Puritan New England, a century before The Castle of Otranto (1765), and Herman Melville unmasks Spanish, African, and Roman Catholic complicity in slavery in "Benito Cereno" (1855–56). The romance tradition that Goddu and other new historicists have criticized for the last twenty years, politically blind as it sometimes was, demonstrated the power of genres to cross cultures and transmute social reality into defamiliarized forms. Moreover, romance foregrounds the subjectively shaping power of language, not only in fictional narratives, but in historical discourse as well. Sophisticated romance theorists like Edgar Dryden and Emily Budick Miller have shown how all history depends on textuality, and as such is fraught with subjectivity and instability. Goddu acknowledges the reciprocal relationship of event and narrative when she says that "history invents the gothic, and in turn the gothic reinvents history" (132). Yet when she goes on to speak of a "gothic event" (146), she implies an essential quality to the gothic that infuses acts themselves, regardless of how they are represented. When is violence simply bloody and horrible and revolting, and not "gothic"? If the answer is "never," then too many distinctions have been lost, which may satisfy the demands of poststructuralist theory but trivializes literary analysis. For this reason, I wish Goddu had said more about "Benito Cereno," for by layering fiction over legal document over autobiography over experience, Melville's story recognizes the constructedness of both the act and its representation and questions the efficacy of all modes of perception.

Gothic America contains a long and valuable bibliography, testimony to Goddu's wide reading in the field and her ready familiarity with contemporary theory. Typically Goddu cites earlier critics primarily to discredit them, without acknowledging, as one might expect of an historicist, their embeddedness in cultural politics. The early progressivist critic V. L. Parrington, for example, is cited on Poe's irrationality, and the popular biographer Montrose Moses on Poe's regionalism, when no knowledgeable Poe scholar has taken either Parrington or Moses seriously for years. Goddu chastises more formidable critics like Leslie Fiedler for placing too little stress on race, but fails to acknowledge Fiedler's enormous contribution to the advancement of Native American and Jewish American literature. As in her frequent complaints that Americanists have neglected the gothic (while she neglects to cite Jane Lundblad's early work on Hawthorne's gothic devices), these instances occur frequently enough to make one suspect she has, in places, erected a straw man.

This is, nevertheless, a valuable work. Goddu raises the question of whether an American gothic could have existed without a "Gothic America," that is, an America riddled with the contradictions of slavery and nascent market capitalism; in so doing, she also raises the larger historicist question, what are the necessary (rather than defining) social, political, and cultural conditions of the gothic? Addressing these issues might help us better understand the pervasive appeal of a Stephen King or Anne Rice in our own time, and might thereby offer insights (however disconcerting) into the state of our own conflicted culture. Goddu's study demonstrates one way of doing this, and might be profitably followed in further analyses of the interdependence of culture and form.