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19th-Century American Gothic: Virginia, Berenice and Edgar(23 Jun 2015)
By Ms Elsa Charléty
For this third post, we are moving both a little further down South and a little forward in time. We are going all the way to Virginia, the homeland of Mister Edgar Allan Poe, the master of gore and horror.
I am aware that a lot has been written about the Divine Edgar, and that it is not easy to say something new about him, especially when dealing with the Gothic. Indeed, for most of us, Poe is not just any old author of Gothic fiction: he is the King, the One that makes you cringe and cry and scream at things that go bump in the night. No need, therefore, to prove Poe’s place in the pantheon of the Gothic.
Instead, I would like to do with Poe what I did with Brockden-Brown and Hawthorne last week: look at the place he occupies in the history of the genre. What are the fears being staged in his fiction? What literary means does he resort to, in order to do so? And how did his work influence the history of American literature?
In comparison to authors like Hawthorne or Brockden-Brown, Poe’s writing was radical in the sense that it is highly graphic. Prior to him, no blood was ever shed; no violence was actually perpetrated in the diegesis. Things happened behind curtains, in the margins of the text, in the ellipses of the narration.
In Brockden-Brown’s Edgar Huntly, for example, the utmost scene of horror where Edgar fights a panther to death, kills it with his bare hands and eats its raw flesh, is only alluded to, recounted by Edgar as if it could have been a dream. In Brockden-Brown, the physical violence is present but never acknowledged as such by the characters, as if doing so would mean yielding to their savage nature. Under Poe’s pen, Gothic fiction stopped suggesting fear and started actually representing it, thus giving birth to gothic horror.
In doing so, Poe managed to create a deep feeling of unease for the reader – which I believe is one of the main consistent traits of American Gothic fiction – but took it to another level in terms of both aesthetics and themes. He puts his characters in touch with their deepest, most dangerous sides: insanity (“William Wilson”), murder (“Tell-Tale heart”), incest (The Fall of the House of Usher”) and maybe even necrophilia (“Berenice”). And let’s not forget cruelty to animals (“The Black Cat”) and torture (“The Pit and the Pendulum”).
Everything that no one wants to see or hear is put right here on a page, for our own uncomfortable thrill. I personally can’t refrain from cringing every time I read the last page of “Berenice” (1842) [i]. Poe’s horror is both very graphic and very organic, always involving organs being ripped out, fluids gushing all around, eyes being enucleated, or limbs being cut off.
Unlike his predecessors, Poe does not hesitate to mistreat the body and its sanctity, something Southern Gothic authors would, eventually, take up after him. Of course Poe is not a Southern writer per se – he was actually born in Boston ! – but most of his life as a writer was spent in Virginia, where the North meets the South.
He never wrote anything about life in the South, about Southern history or customs but, as Ellen Glasgow argues in A Certain Measure, his techinques are « southern » by all means[ii] : southern in style not in content. Something about Poe’s fiction is definitely Southern, and it is no wonder that his work should shape in some way the literature of the region. You will find echoes of Poe in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner or Carson McCuller, as misfits of all kinds waddle around the dirt roads of the Deep South with missing arms and shorter legs, perpetrating acts of gratuitious violence.
The fears and anxieties tackled by Poe in his short stories were of a similar nature to those that occupied Hawthorne or Brockden-Brown, but his way of portraying them in the narration through horrifying images and gore embodied a radical turn in the aesthetic of American Gothic fiction. From this point on, fear stops being completely psychological and metaphysical : after Poe, the violence of the Gothic was something to be enacted on both mind and body.
Next week, we will go way way down South, and follow the trail of American Gothic fiction all the way into Dixieland, on the territory of Faulkner, O’Connor, Caldwell and McCullers…
[i] In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator realises that in his sleep, he has profaned the grave of his dead cousin Berenice and pulled out the teeth from her corpse one by one:
“With a shriek I bounded to the table, and grasped the ebony box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open, and in my tremor it slipped from out my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces, and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with many white and glistening substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.” Poe, Edgar Allan, and J. Gerald Kennedy. The Portable Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Penguin Books, (2006). p104
[ii] According to to Glasgow, Poe, if not in content is Southern in style: “Poe is, to a large extent, a distillation of the Southerner (…) the formalism of his tone, the classical element in his poetry and in many of his stories, the drift toward rhetoric, the aloof and elusive intensity, all these qualities are Southern." Glasgow, Ellen. A Certain Measure, An Interpretation of Prose Fiction. New York : Harcourt, (1943). p132