The Locale of Melville's Gothicism

By Thompson, Corey Evan | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Locale of Melville's Gothicism


Thompson, Corey Evan, Papers on Language & Literature


The publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764 marks the inception of a literary mode that would be developed largely in Britain over the remainder of the eighteenth century by authors including Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron), Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho), Matthew Lewis (The Monk), and William Godwin (Caleb Williams): the Gothic. (1) Although a precise and widely accepted definition of the Gothic has proven to be elusive in academic circles (Napier 7; Kilgour 3-4; Hemenway 101), it nevertheless contains a variety of features that collectively make the early tradition easily recognizable. Elements including a medieval and southern-European setting, haunted castles with subterranean passages and dungeons, mysterious disappearances or events, a gloomy and foreboding atmosphere, evil villains, and supernatural phenomenon that evoke emotions of terror and horror abound in the works of Walpole and his immediate successors. By employing such features so frequently throughout their works, the early Gothics firmly established the conventions that clearly formed the early Gothic mode and set its formula for those who would follow in its development.

Approximately 30 years after the publication of Walpole's Otranto, the Gothic was finding--and subsequently proliferating in--a new home in America. Charles Brockden Brown initiated the American Gothic literary tradition with his 1798 novel Wieland; or the Transformation, and he contributed to it with his later works Edgar Huntley (1799), Ormond (1799), and Arthur Mervyn (1800). The Gothic would be established further as a prominent literary mode in America throughout the nineteenth century by some of the era's most notable authors. Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, among others, have all produced classic nineteenth-century examples. Right from the mode's establishment in America with the publication of Brown's Wieland, however, the American Gothic exhibited significant differences from the British tradition in a variety of ways. As Teresa A. Goddu remarks, "Once imported to America, the gothic's key elements were translated into American terms" (4). Although Brown and his successors made a number of alterations, the most significant modification--and the change that necessitated the alteration of other established British conventions--was the locale in which the American Gothicists chose to set their works.

As noted, one of the British Gothic's most common conventions is a southern-European setting, the general locale of works including Walpole's Otranto, Radcliffe's Mysteries (1794), and Lewis's The Monk (1796). Despite its mid-eighteenth-century inception, not until the late nineteenth century, in such works as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), do we see the Gothic's terrors released in the British epicenter of London (Gross 2). Yet as a number of eminent Gothic scholars have insightfully noted, the American Gothic exhibits topographical differences from the British tradition (Fiedler 144-5; Punter 212; Gross 2, 23; Goddu 4; Lloyd-Smith 26), a variation that Charles Brockden Brown himself argued was essential. In his preface to Edgar Huntley and with regard to setting, Brown argues that American Gothic works "should differ essentially from those which exist in Europe" (3). According to Brown, they should be situated in America: "the incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable [for American Gothic settings]; and, for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology" (3). Unlike their British counterparts and adhering to Brown's demands, therefore, "American gothicists do not remove their characters to Italy, Spain, France, or the other centers of English Gothic mystery" (Gross 23).

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