Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

The Ghost of Race: Edgar Allan Poe and the Southern Gothic

Monk Lewis once was asked how he came, in one of his acted plays, to introduce black banditti, when, in the country where the scene was laid, black people were quite unknown. His answer was: "I introduced them because I truly anticipated that blacks would have more effect on my audience than whites--and if I had taken it into my head that, by making them sky-blue the effect would have been greater, why sky-blue they should have been."

--Letter from Edgar Allan Poe to a friend ( June 26, 1849)1

Poe's reiteration of Monk Lewis's disingenuous remarks about the source of his banditti's "blackness," which claims that the gothic's hauntings are merely a formalistic effect, foregrounds the need to locate the gothic's effects in history. Monk Lewis might claim that his choice of "black" banditti arose from an innate understanding of his audience, but his own history tells a different story. As the son of a slaveholder with two plantations in Jamaica and some seven hundred slaves, Lewis could not help but be cognizant of the cultural context of his aesthetic choice.2 Even if the scene he depicts in The Monk ( 1796) ( Spain during the time of the Inquisition) might not be familiar with blacks, the world of England's slaveholding society, which he inhabited, was. Indeed, the gothic's "blackness" has strong historical connections to slavery: not only did many male gothicists support slavery, but the rise of the gothic novel in England ( 1790-1830) occurred during a period of increased debate over slavery.3 As Kari Winter has shown in her important study, Subjects of Slavery/Agents of Change ( 1992), gothic novels actively engaged issues of slavery.4 The terror of possession, the iconography of entrapment and imprisonment, and the familial transgressions found in the gothic novel were also present in the slave system. Given the historical context of the gothic novel ("le roman noir"), the "blackness" of the gothic needs to be examined in terms of slavery and, more generally, ideologies of race.

Like Monk Lewis, who denied the racial referents of his gothic effects, criticism on the gothic has often failed to view the gothic's most striking and constant symbolic opposition--black/white--in racial terms. It has taken critics of African-American literature to point out, as Robert Hemenway does in an article on Charles Chesnutt ghost stories, The Conjure Woman ( 1899), that the gothic's oppositional symbolism carries "a sociological burden even when there is no conscious intention of racial statement."5 Since the gothic's "color imagery . . . coincides with the mythology of race prevalent in Western culture," Hemenway argues, it leaves "racial fantasies to reverberate in the Gothic effect."6 According

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