Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861

Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861

Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861

Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861


Beginning in the 1790s, North American readers developed an appetite for the gothic novel, as imported, reprinted, and pirated editions of British and European romances flooded the market alongside homegrown works. In Gothic Subjects, Si¢n Silyn Roberts accounts for the sudden and considerable appeal of the gothic during this period by contending that it prepared a culturally diverse American readership to think of itself as part of a transatlantic world through which goods, people, and information could circulate. By putting gothic literature in dialogue with the writings of Locke, Hume, Reid, Smith, Rousseau, and other major figures of the European Enlightenment, Silyn Roberts shows how the early American novel participated in the process of revising and transforming the figure of the modern individual for a fluid, contingent Atlantic population.

Exploring works of fiction by Charles Brockden Brown, Leonora Sansay, Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Montgomery Bird, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Wells Brown, among others, Silyn Roberts argues that the gothic helped post-Revolutionary readers to think of themselves as political subjects. By reading the emergence of a national literary style in terms of its appropriation and reinterpretation of British cultural forms, Gothic Subjects situates itself at the crux of several important issues in American literary history: transatlantic literary relations, the connection between literature and political philosophy, the paradoxes of sovereign power, and the form of the novel. In doing so, Gothic Subjects powerfully rethinks some of our previous assumptions about the cultural work of the American gothic tradition.


In order to make a concrete analysis of power relations, we must
abandon the juridical model of sovereignty. That model in effect
presupposes that the individual is a subject with natural rights or
primitive powers; it sets itself the task of accounting for the ideal
genesis of the State; and finally, it makes the law the basic mani
festation of power. We should be trying to study power not on the
basis of the primitive terms of the relationship, but on the basis of
the relationship itself, to the extent that it is the relationship itself
that determines the elements on which it bears: rather than asking
ideal subjects what part of themselves or their powers they have
surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects, we have to
look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects.
Similarly, rather than looking for the single form or the central
point from which all forms of power derive, either by way of
consequence or development, we must begin by letting them
operate in their multiplicity, their differences, their specificity, and
their reversibility; we must therefore study them as relations of
force that intersect, refer to one another, converge, or, on the
contrary, come into conflict and strive to negate one another.

—Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (1976)

Say something about objectivity and subjectivity. Be sure and abuse
a man called Locke.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838)

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