Diagnosing the "Sir Walter Disease": American Architecture in the Age of Romantic Literature

By Carso, Kerry Dean | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2002 | Go to article overview

Diagnosing the "Sir Walter Disease": American Architecture in the Age of Romantic Literature


Carso, Kerry Dean, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay argues that Gothic literature and historical romances changed the course of American architecture by influencing architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). Davis's client Robert Gilmor III shared his love of Gothic fiction and even visited Scott's Abbotsford and Walpole's Strawberry Hill before commissioning Davis to design Glen Ellen (1832-1833).

When a client commissioned American Gothic Revival architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) to design a house, the first thing Davis wanted to know was his client's reading habits. Davis wrote to one client, "It is impossible for me to tell what expression to give the exterior that will answer your own beau ideal unless I am better acquainted with your temper! That is, whether you read Shakespeare more than Thomson; Moore more than Collins; or Homer at all; either in the Iliad or Odyessy [sic]; or whether you read the great book of Nature" (emph. Davis's; Brendel-Pandich 79). Although Davis does not mention Ann Radcliffe or Horace Walpole here, he very well could have, because on Davis's bookshelf, along with Boydell's Shakespeare library; were a number of Gothic novels that he read on a regular basis.

Gothic novels and historical romances, such as those written by Sir Walter Scott, were devoured with pleasure by an avid reading audience. Walpole wrote his novel

The Castle of Otranto as a method of escapism, a way of "exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams" (letter to George Montagu, 5 January 1766, Correspondence X.192). Recent critics have argued that Gothic literature is not an escapist form of literature--a way for readers to revel in nostalgic representations of an idealized past--but rather a literature reflective of the historical and cultural forces of contemporary life. For instance, in Gothic America: Narrative, History and Myth, Teresa A. Goddu argues that American Gothic literature should be read within an historical and racial context, rather than as an escapist literature. My interpretation negotiates between these two apparently conflictive approaches. I argue that Gothic literature does transport its reader to imaginary realms and by-gone eras of castles and superstitious awe, and that people read Gothic novels to escape from the humdrum reality of real life, but, like any form of cultural production, Gothic literature cannot help but engage with the time in which it is written. These two interpretations do not have to be mutually exclusive.

What is clear is that Gothic novels and historical romances influenced the architects and clients of American architecture quite seriously. Indeed, "works of the imagination" (as Davis labelled them in his catalogue of books) profoundly affected American architecture in the heyday of Gothic Revival design (the 1830s and 1840s). Scott's novels were particularly widely read and admired. In Europe, as in the United States, Scott's fiction and his home Abbotsford had a large influence on later European architecture, as critic Charles L. Eastlake acknowledged in the nineteenth century (115).

For the most part, architectural historians have failed to examine the complex interrelationships between Gothic Revival architecture and Gothic literature. One notable exception is William Pierson, who acknowledges the influence of Scott and Walpole (who both built influential Gothic Revival houses) in his important book American Buildings and Their Architects: Technology and the Picturesque, The Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles. But Pierson never mentions Gothic novelists such as Ann Radcliffe and Charles Maturin, both of whom held a prominent place on the reading lists of Gothic Revival architects and clients alike. In the end, formal analysis takes precedence over cultural history in Pierson's approach. Besides Pierson's book, there are three other major architectural histories on the American Gothic Revival in this period: Phoebe Stanton's The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840--1856; Calder Loth and Julius T. …

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