Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe's Gothic

By Dougherty, Stephen | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe's Gothic


Dougherty, Stephen, Papers on Language & Literature


"[I]n the nineteenth century," writes Reginald Horsman, "the Americans were to share in the discovery that the secret of Saxon success lay not in the institutions but in the blood" (24). This "discovery" was of monumental and devastating importance, and by the middle of the century the sign of blood seemed to be everywhere. Americans and Europeans were entering a new era of blood--of blood spilled as never before in genocides around the globe, of blood seeping inexorably into the sacred and profane imagination of race and the nation, and of blood horrors turned into a staple of mass entertainment.

This era of blood was the era of the bourgeoisie's entrenchment. In Juice of Life Piero Camporesi tells us, "At least up until the eighteenth century, blood was still dubbed the 'father of all the humors.' Life and salvation were closely tied up with its quality and purity" (14). Camporesi implicitly suggests a diminished rather than an augmented concern with blood in the modern world. But, if anything, this concern was heightened by its modified signification in the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the traditional theory of humors with the rise of scientific medicine in the eighteenth century, blood lost some of its old associations, but it gained some important new ones. Blood came to represent not the character of the individual, but the purity of the race or nation. The idea of purity--or impurity--of blood became the vessel of many bourgeois fears about confrontation with indigenous and colonized peoples, national identity, historical destiny, and the dream of progress. The race or nation whose mission--and manifest destiny--was to lead humanity into a better world could hardly dilute the very essence of its identity by "mixing" its blood. The most cherished precept of this era could be summed up in the words that John C. Calhoun spoke on the U. S. Senate floor in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War: ". . . Ours is a government of the white man . . . . [I]n the whole history of man . . . there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored race, of any shade, being found equal. . ." (my emphasis; qtd. in Fredrickson 136).

Though the proud boast was meant to naturalize white colonialism and imperialism, which were already well into one of their most expansive phases in U. S. history, Calhoun's words belie a profound insecurity regarding the popular imagination of the white American destiny. The great fear was miscegenation, a mixing of bloodlines which, as historians and ethnologists of the era were becoming convinced, was the central factor in the decline of great civilizations. "Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian," Josiah Nott appealed to fellow Americans, and to southern compatriots especially, "the latter have sunk into barbarism" (qtd. in Horsman 130). This fear was most routinely projected onto the Other who constituted the enemy internal to the body politic--the African. In 1839, the same year that "The Fall of the House of Usher" was published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, the revered New England theologian Horace Bushnell predicted that if the slaves were ever freed they would die off by the end of the century. As George Frederickson emphasizes in his valuable reading of the period in The Black Image in the White Mind, Bushnell's prediction represented an early transposition onto the slaves of the brutally callous view that had already made Native American genocide seem acceptable and natural to the whites: "'vices which taint the blood and cut down life' might well 'penetrate the whole stock, and begin to hurry them off, in a process of premature extinction; as we know to be the case with another barbarous people, [the Indians] now fast yielding to the infection of death'" (qtd. in Fredrickson 155). Bushnell imagined this extinction to be a "glorious" possibility for the white man; and indeed Frederickson refers to this vision of black annihilation as Bushnell's "happy theme" (155). …

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