From Edwards to Slosson: Typology, Nature, and the New England Domestic Gothic

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To the memory of David H. Hirsch

Jonathan Edwards does not really require much introduction to an audience of Americanists and everyone will recognize in this title the blueprint of Perry Miller's classic essay on the continuity of ideas in New England from the leader of the Great Awakening to that of the "Transcendental Club". On the contrary, at least so far, Annie Trumbull Slosson had a long run of posthumous bad luck, since her name hardly ever appeared even in the most narrowly focused studies of the New England local color fiction at the turn of the twentieth century. Josephine Donovan, the feminist redeemer of authors disregarded and forgotten, does not mention Slosson's name in her otherwise comprehensive New England Local Color Literature. A Women's Tradition (1983), while the standard authority in the field, Perry D. Westbrook, devotes to her just one page in his Acres of Flint. Sarah Orne Jewett and Her Contemporaries (2nd rev. ed. 1981). In fact, Westbrook is quite embarrassed even by this modest sign of recognition, for he write s:

As there is no crime or immorality in being Genteel, one should approach Slosson for what she was -- a short-story writer of very slender yet definitely discernible talent. ... The low-water mark of Slosson's and of the whole tradition that she represented is found in The Local Colorist. Realizing that her slight vein of talent has been worked out, she here resorts to parodying her own style -- the excessive interest in dialect, the preoccupation with nature study, the sentimentality of her plots. When a tradition's vitality consists solely in the possibilities it offers for parody that tradition is probably near extinction (Westbrook 1981: 158-159).

In Westbrook's view, the "most impressive work" of Slosson's is a collection called Dumb Foxglove and Other Stories (1898). The critic even makes a brief reference to one specific tale from the volume, "Anna Malann", although for some reason he does not consider it worthwhile to mention the title. Other -- indeed scanty -- information about Slosson includes her place of birth, which was Stonington in eastern Connecticut; place of permanent residence after marriage, which was New York; lifelong emotional ties with New England, and passions for collecting chinaware and insects. What attracted Westbrook's attention is also the significance of traditional Calvinism or, more precisely, Congregationalism, for the predominantly female world of Slosson's fiction. All in all, then, as a kind of belated epigone -- oddly enough, since actually she was a contemporary of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett -- Annie Trumbull Slosson has been thus far relegated by criticism to the obsourest nook in the limbo of mi nor literary figures. The present effort to move her to a relatively more prominent position is based on two collections of stories: The Dumb Foxglove, acknowledged by Westbrook as of some importance but virtually unexamined, and Seven Dreamers, first published in 1890. (As a matter of fact, both volumes have been reprinted by the Books for Libraries Press in 1970 and 1969, respectively.) Particularly the latter collection -- preceding The Dumb Foxglove and bracketed by the best known short story books of Wilkins Freeman: A Humble Romance (1887) and A New England Nun (1891) -- will be approached as an arguably notable contribution to the American gothic in its late nineteenth-century "domestic" or, as Lawrence Buell has put it with emphasis placed on cultural geography, "provincial" gothic variant.

"By 'provincial gothic'," writes Buell, "I mean the use of gothic conventions to anatomize the pathology of regional culture" (1986: 351). While in the fiction of Freeman this pathology is observed for the most part on the level of distorted or unfulfilled family relationships, as for instance in "The Revolt of 'Mother'" or "The New England Nun", often approached by critics in feminist terms (Blatt Glasser 1996; Donovan 1983: 119-138), the stories of Slosson -- in particular those from Seven Dreamers -- focus on cases of derangement and disturbances of personal identity. …