The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic: Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

By Crow, Charles L. | Gothic Studies, November 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic: Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


Crow, Charles L., Gothic Studies


The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic: Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth- Century American Literature by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), ISBN 978-1-4094-0056-1, 163pp, $89.95hb.

As David Punter reminded us recently in his tribute to Allan Lloyd-Smith on the IGA website, Gothic Studies is a new discipline, one that was not inevitable twenty-five years ago. Professor Monnet's book is both an example of the sophistication the discipline has achieved, and an explanation of how it has reached this point.

In 1930, when Grant Wood painted the popular image that is the cover art for Monnet's study, its title, American Gothic, seemed a comic, oxymoronic yoking of incompatible terms. Monnet's introductory chapter traces the evolution of the term 'American Gothic' in criticism to the present, then loops back to Woods's painting to show how Gothic theory can, indeed, illuminate this ambiguous painting. She then introduces Gordon Parks's photograph of an African American woman holding a mop and boom, also titled American Gothic (1942), which signifies on Wood's painting. The dialog of these two images establishes the importance of race and gender, the twin subjects of her study, in American Gothic.

This opening is witty, stimulating, and informative. A seminar on the American Gothic could spend a profitable first meeting discussing the critical history Monnet provides in her introduction.

Monnet's own contribution to the discourse of Gothic begins by discounting its emotional impact on its audience: no sophisticated reader of Gothic fiction is really badly frightened, and we all become sophisticated very quickly. Monnet's interest, rather, is in the questions of judgment raised by the Gothic, and in the ways 'nineteenth-century American writers adapted the gothic to explore political and cultural dilemmas' (18). Gothic writers often maneuver readers into situations where the judgment is required but forestalled by conflicting values or narratives - a situation Monnet defines through the rhetorical figure of paradiastole and Lyotard's notion of the differand. This frustration of judgment is apparent in Brown's Wieland, where every character is handicapped in some way in interpreting the narrative in which she or he acts.

In the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (subject of Chapter One) the reader is forced to sense moral issues that the usually crazed narrators cannot, in order to make sense of the stories. As Monnet's reading of 'The Masque of the Red Death' and 'William Wilson' demonstrates, conscience is the unacknowledged presence that we must recognize. But what moral insight or appeal to conscience does the Southerner Poe offer about slavery, the great political and ethical question of his era? Though Poe sometimes has been seen as a Southern apologist, Monnet's nuanced reading of several tales, including 'Hop Frog' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher' contests this perception. Both stories encode language of slave rebellion, and reveal 'abolitionist assumptions' (50). While Poe may have employed racial stereotypes in In the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (subject of Chapter One) the reader is forced to sense moral issues that the usually crazed narrators cannot, in order to make sense of the stories. As Monnet's reading of 'The Masque of the Red Death' and 'William Wilson' demonstrates, conscience is the unacknowledged presence that we must recognize. But what moral insight or appeal to conscience does the Southerner Poe offer about slavery, the great political and ethical question of his era? Though Poe sometimes has been seen as a Southern apologist, Monnet's nuanced reading of several tales, including 'Hop Frog' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher' contests this perception. Both stories encode language of slave rebellion, and reveal 'abolitionist assumptions' (50).

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