Academic journal article Irish Gothic Journal

Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Academic journal article Irish Gothic Journal

Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Article excerpt

Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, ed. by Dawn Keetley and Matthew Wynn Sivils (New York: Routledge, 2018)

Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Dawn Keetley and Matthew Wynn Sivils's 2018 collection, provides a space in which to examine human interaction with the American landscape in the long nineteenth century, at a time of huge environmental change due to colonialism, over-consumption of natural resources, plantation slavery, and industrialisation. In their introduction, Keetley and Sivils state that

Thus far, then, critics have established the ecogothic as (1) a repository of deep unease, fear, and even contempt as humans confront the natural world; (2) a literary mode that uses an implacable external 'wilderness' to call attention to the crisis in practices of representation; and (3) a terrain in which the contours of the body are mapped, contours that increasingly stray beyond the bounds of what might be considered properly 'human'. (p. 4)

Using these definitions as starting points, then, the editors go on to explore the main ways in which they propose to expand the landscape of ecogothic criticism. These three main areas - ecogothic time and space, the racial ecogothic, and the non-human ecogothic - are also touched upon, if more informally than in the introduction, throughout the collection's fourteen chapters. Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature proposes to build upon the work of critics such as Simon C. Estok, William Hughes, and Andrew Smith, to determine to what extent ecocriticism can further challenge the already-blurring boundaries between humans and nature in American literature.

While the collection examines many of the mainstays of nineteenth-century gothic literature, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, it also focuses on lesser-known gothic authors such as Leonora Sansay and Charles Chesnutt. One of the collection's running themes is an exploration of antebellum anti-slavery literature that, following Teresa Goddu's influential work Gothic America (1997), has been increasingly recognised as a core element in American gothic. This interrogation of the racial gothic includes Jericho Williams's examination of various antebellum slavery narratives, 'Ghoulish Hinterlands: Ecogothic Confrontations in American Slave Narratives', which highlights the differences between nature in transcendentalist writing and slavery narratives. Perhaps most interesting of all is Williams's reading of Solomon Northup's narrative Twelve Years a Slave (1853), a reading which highlights the nuances and singularities of an oftenoverlooked text. In '"The Earth Was Groaning and Shaking": Landscapes of Slavery in The History of Mary Prince', Amanda Stuckey shows how literal surface readings - such as those focusing on the fractured and volatile volcanic literary landscape of nineteenth-century Bermuda and the Caribbean - can lead to new conceptions of slavery, by focusing on tactile experience. This argument ties in particularly well with Keetley and Sivil's discussion of how the ecogothic explores 'the direct physical connection between slaves, the land upon which they toil, and the fruits of their labor' (p. 8).

The versatile nature of American ecogothic, which is found throughout the collection, often invites the reader and critic to recognise environmental issues in new and unexpected places. In '"The Birth-Mark", "Rappaccini's Daughter", and the Ecogothic', Lesley Ginsberg, building upon Smith and Hughes, argues that, despite the tonal differences found in these stories, 'nature in these tales is clearly "a space of crisis" linked to larger concerns about the status of humans in nature, a crisis refracted through gothic extremes of power and abjection' (p. 115).1 Ginsberg successfully demonstrates how ecogothic readings of the environment permit critics to make connections between seemingly disparate texts. Other chapters challenge the ability of humans to read their environments: 'Failures to Signify: Poe's Uncanny Animal Others', Kate Huber's chapter, is an examination of Poe's 'The Black Cat' (1843) and 'The Raven' (1845), illustrating the limits and dangers of anthropomorphising pets and animals, a recognisable failing of Poe's narrators. …

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