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An Argument for a Gothic Charles W. Chesnutt: Contextualizing American slavery and the Gothic(03 Dec 2013)
By Ms Kathleen Hudson
Nobody really believes we live in a post-racial anything these days, but the way in which most people, and particularly Americans, deal with issues of racial disparity in history is often reflective of tensions about contextualizing and presenting repressed voices. “American Horror Story: Coven” is to blame for this post, as is “Django Unchained” and the much anticipated “Twelve Years a Slave,” all of which treat the same area of American history in wildly different ways. Charles L. Crow argues that many aspects of slavery and race relations in history appeal to the Gothic, the tropes and aesthetic which focus specifically on areas of historical tension and trauma. Contemporary depictions of slavery go from exploitative to horrifying to frankly brutal to cathartically expressive. Sensationalism, tact, ignorance, honesty... how do we deal with race in America? Can/do older depictions of race relations have any impact on current perceptions of
literature and specifically on the ways in which we construct American Gothic studies?
Charles W. Chesnutt receives an honorable mention in Charles L. Crow's American Gothic (2009) but his assorted "Tales of the Conjure Woman" (published 1887-1924) only rarely figure into academic discussions of American Gothic. These stories can be classified in various ways - the frame narrator, a white northerner named John, may see the tales told to him by the freed-slave narrator Uncle Julius as comical fairytales (though decidedly more Grimm brothers than Disney), but he is pretty much the only one who does. Chesnutt himself identified them as part of a Post-bellum and Pre-Harlem genre in which the “local color” language and setting and thematic tensions of the Old American South underlies the re-writing of repressed narrative embodied in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. As such, the characters in "Conjure Woman," white and black, Southern and Northern, explore the legacy of slavery in America - Northern whites disapprove of slavery in academic terms but are still often less than appreciative of the nuances inherent to the black experience; white Southerners are often intransigently unreceptive yet are not exclusively cast as the villains; African American characters are caught between an individualistic need for self-expression and the lingering psychological effects of a life spent in slavery.
The stories themselves and the manner in which they are told (a very distinct dialect) are richly expressive of the slave and post-slavery voice, and fiercely condemn institutionalized racial repression covertly if not directly. They are perhaps not considered as strictly within the genre but I would argue that Chesnutt's exploration of repression and trauma makes the "Conjure Woman" tales distinctly Gothic texts, an African American experience functioning as American Gothic literature. Frame-narrator John may fail to see the tales as anything but ridiculous, but Charles Crow points out that John's wife Annie sees many of them as Gothic, and indeed the reader often can't but agree. Three stories in particular from the Chesnutt canon are decidedly Gothic in nature, and in teaching and reading an American Gothic canon the inclusion of such stories could deeply impact perceptions of American Gothic development.
Chesnutt's "Po' Sandy" (1888), in its framing story, sees John, the white northerner (a recent addition to a Southern neighborhood come to capitalize on the upheaval of the post-war South), attempt to recycle some wood from a broken down structure in order to build a kitchen on his newly purchased property. Uncle Julius then tells him that the structure is haunted by a slave named Sandy, who was turned into a tree by his wife, Tenie, so that the two of them could remain together. In a rather brutal turn of events Sandy is then cut down and made into a kitchen and Tenie goes insane with grief. John scoffs at this bit of folkloric imagination, but Annie refuses to have the wood used in the kitchen and instead gives the old place to Uncle Julius's church group. "Po' Sandy" not only reflects racial discourse but can also be read as a proto-feminist work. Annie's sympathy for Tenie (when the story ends Annie's first thought is not "poor Sandy" but rather "poor Tenie") and their parallel characterizations (both are subject to a paternalistic reading of their selves which negates their voices and forces them to turn to covert methods of expression), refocuses their individual narratives as not only cross-racial but also gender-specific reflections of Gothic fears.
At its core, "Po' Sandy" can be read as a pseudo-haunted house story, where the sins of the patriarchal/aristocratic group creates a space for recurring tension. This story is distinctly American Gothic, however, in that it epitomizes tensions about undermined progress, the untamed wilderness, and the unstable senses which feed specifically American fears. In this tale a structure (or country) has been built literally using the flesh and blood and suffering of a repressed race, and is thus inherently tainted. A space (or country) so created must forever be a source of recurring trauma, historical and emotional upheaval that ultimately either makes the structure unusable or requires a spiritual exorcism, a moral realignment such as the transformation of Po' Sandy's remains to a place of worship.
"The Dumb Witness" (1897) and "The Marked Tree" (1924) were published a while after "Po' Sandy" and both employ more traditional Gothic tropes that many of Chesnutt's earlier works. Like "Po' Sandy" they emphasize the repressed and marginalized voice, one which finds a way to revenge itself. The thematic focus of "The Dumb Witness" and "The Marked Tree" suggest that the decay and destruction of the idealized white Southern aristocratic home is a direct result of that institution's reliance on slavery. "The Dumb Witness" (one of the few stories told without the local color dialect) sees a master cut his female slave's tongue out for revealing a secret (one not overtly presented to the reader) to the master's fiancé, only to realize too late that the maimed woman is the only person who knows the location of a crucial family document. The master's estate falls into ruin and the man himself goes insane as a result of his cruelty. Themes throughout the tale continually emphasize the problematic unspoken slave narrative and the trauma that naturally arises from the repression of speak and language. It is strongly implied (a tellingly 'unspoken' subtext) that the master and slave had a sexual affair before the deciding act of violence, and also that the relationship was perhaps incestuous. Transgression becomes an inescapably corruptive cycle, and the master's attempt to marginalize the slave narrative (as the ultimately result of a multi-generational perpetuation of an immoral system) ends up ultimately leading to his moral and material destruction.
"The Marked Tree," too, plays with Gothic themes of hereditary curses and doubles as it described an old Southern family destroyed by their own lack of appreciation for human life. In this tale a slave boy is sold to pay for a decadent family wedding. The boy attempts to escape from his new master and is brutally attacked by dogs, but manages to reach his mother's home before dying. The mother then puts a 'mark' on one of the master's trees, (that specific tree doubles as a recognized symbol for family prosperity as well as a reference to the genealogy of a ‘family tree’), and one by one members of the master's family, even down to the most distant relatives, are killed off in accidents near or involving the tree.
It is noted here that the young white master whose wedding it was and the young man sold into slavery were born on the same day, suggesting doubled selves and exchange, and in emphasizing the nature of subverted brotherhood we again see possibilities for sexual transgression, incest, etc. The connection with the tree as a symbol of the family further suggests that there is a moral rot at the center of the patriarchal structure that belies its prosperous exterior - in this sense the old, Southern, aristocratic family will always fall because of a failure to acknowledge the humanity of others. The slave-mother notably is a solitary figure who doesn't partake in the festivities of the wedding and mourns her son by herself - she is given no dialogue, but she singlehandedly manages to make a 'mark' a written sign that utterly decimates her master's family. Even when the father cuts down the cursed tree, the bad luck remains in the stump, and only after the remains of the tree roots are literally dynamited off the face of the earth is the revenge cycle completed.
I have given an over-simplistic overview of just a few of Chesnutt's tales, but so much of our understanding of American Southern Gothic seems to focus on white authors of the twentieth century. While those authors do embody definitions of the genre, academically and even more generally morally we risk forgetting earlier authors and minority authors and the areas of the genre which focus specifically on the 'haunting' of racial trauma. The most recently released 'Gothic' treatment of American slavery in the rather over-the-top T.V. show "American Horror Story" doesn't exaggerate when it describes the horrors inflicted on slaves in early nineteenth century New Orleans, but it chooses to build its villains, especially the infamous Madame LaLaurie, into more problematically sympathetic figures rather than focus on the repressed narratives of the slaves she tortured. It is another example of a recurring problem - how do we find truth if we continually filter alternative voices through a master narrative? I believe reading Chesnutt's treatment of repressed narrative helps us explore post-war systems of repression better - he discusses the violence and the materials horrors of slavery, sure, but beneath it all the main problem, the central issue, is always the question of what to do with the slave 'voice.' Chesnutt hints at a post-Civil War inclination to deny former slaves the freedom to express themselves culturally, to modifiy their voices in a way which conforms to a white patriarchal system. He examines this tendency and then undermines it repeatedly in his works, and ultimately positions himself in a way which transcends and defies Gothic genres.
In many ways Chesnutt has distinctly Gothic tendencies and his fairly underappreciated stories deserve more attention as we seek to define Gothicism and American Literature. Chesnutt gives us Gothic preoccupations with identity and morality and history that define both the genre and the American experience. Given recent attention in popular media to both traditional and non-traditional readings of the slave experience in America, perhaps it is time to reevaluate and revisit Chesnutt's position in American Gothic literature.
Crow, Charles L., History of the Gothic: American Gothic, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)
Chesnutt, Charles W., The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, Edited with Introduction by Richard H. Brodhead, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993)