Gothic Chapbooks and the Urban Reader

By Hoeveler, Diane Long | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Gothic Chapbooks and the Urban Reader


Hoeveler, Diane Long, Wordsworth Circle


Gothic bluebooks and chapbooks have been the stepchild of gothic scholarship, frequently ignored because of their derivative nature and their lack of artistic sophistication, depth, or significance (Varma; Frank; Watt). Montague Summers claims that they were the reading material of "schoolboys, prentices, servant-girls, by the whole of that vast population which longed to be in the fashion, to steep themselves in the Gothic Romance." They are commonly referred to as "the remainder trade" or "the trade Gothic" (84-5). William St. Clair has claimed that the chapbooks were read by "adults in the country areas, and young people in both the town and the country. It would be a mistake, therefore, to regard the ancient popular print as confined to those whose education fitted them for nothing longer or textually more difficult. Many readers, whether adults or children, lived at the boundary between the reading and the non-reading nations. They were the marginal reading constituency whose numbers fell when prices rose and rose when prices fell" (343-44), Whatever the class of their intended readership, I would assert that gothic bluebooks and eventually the importance of the gothic short tale requires an understanding of the ambivalent agenda of secularization they carried within their slim and flimsy covers.

Scholars claim that the short gothic tale or chapbook grew out of the earlier tradition of cheap broadside (because printed on one side of the paper) ballads or street literature, and certainly one can see in the short eight-page chapbooks the residue of this direct oral to written tradition (James). Gary Kelly observed that this early street literature is characterized by its "emphasis on destiny, chance, fortune and levelling forces such as death, express [ing] the centuries-old experience of common people. ... with little or no control over the conditions of their lives. ... For these people, life was a lottery" (2002; U. x). According to Kelly, the fact that the lower-classes were the target audience of these early productions is also obvious from their very heavy use of narrative repetition, their emphasis on incident and adventure, and their episodic and anecdotal structures. The other major difference between lower and middle-class reading materials is the absence in the lower-class works of any extended depictions of subjectivity or emotions in the protagonists (II. x; xv). One example of this lower-class ideology appears in Isabella Lewis's Terrific Tales (1804), a series of short vignettes that purport to be true, although the contents are fantastical and reveal an interesting mix of residual supernaturalism combined with rationalizing Christian moral exemplum. For instance, one tale concerns an aristocrat, "of very inordinate passions," who is kidnapped by a spirit who arrived on horseback. Obviously a prose revision and redaction of the Germanic ballad "Lenora," the homily at the conclusion remarks on his abduction as "a punishment for his excessive passions" (7). What is most interesting about these tales, besides their repetitive use of specters, devils, ghosts in chains, warnings from Purgatory, and clouds of sulfur, is their persistent assurance that the afterworld and the realm of the transcendent exists. In one tale, a dead man appears to his friend to exclaim, "Michael, Michael! Nothing is more true than what has been said of the other world" (61), and such a message is the major reason for the popularity of these works. The supernatural was not supposed to he explained away, but instead confirmed as real. Although the elite and the intelligentsia might have been willing to accept the stark lessons of materialism and the finality of death, the lower class was not able to do so, and the gothic chapbook reveals in all its convolutions the persistence and continuing power of the supernatural in the social imaginary (Hoeveler).

The earlier "lottery mentality" that was operative in the lower-class chapbooks was eventually replaced during the late 18th century by what Kelly calls a dominant "investment mentality" evidenced in the emerging middle-class chapbooks. …

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