Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Classics Circuit Gothic Literature Tour: American Short Stories of Irving and Hawthorne

 I am very excited to be a part of the Gothic Literature Classics Circuit tour this month focusing on Pre-Victorian Gothic Literature (before 1840). I should have posted this yesterday, but had a big work related meeting that consumed my time, please forgive me!

According to my friend Wikipedia, Gothic fiction combines elements of horror and romance. This genre started in England in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Wadpole. It soon made its way across the Atlantic to America where early American gothic writers focused on the frontier wilderness anxiety and the lasting effects of the Puritan society.

Gothic fiction contains various archetypes such as an innocent virginal maiden heroine, an older foolish woman, a hero, a tyrant, a stupid/servant or clown comic relief, and a spooky setting. The setting is very important and usually involves a castle, abbey, or other usually religious edifice. In American Gothic, the building is usually replaced with unexplored territory, wilderness, or caves.

I love short stories and a few of my favorite stories by early American authors are gothic in nature. These include “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, “Young Goodman Brown” and “the Minister’s Black Veil by Nathanial Hawthorne.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving was “the first American writer of imaginative literature to gain international fame” according to my American Literature book (edited by George McMichael). He published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820 as part of The Sketch Book Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. He moved to England for a period of years, but returned to America at the end of this life and is buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
I love this story; it is a perfect Halloween story as well as a great story of what life was like in a Dutch village on the Hudson back in the eighteenth century. Ichabod Crane is a schoolteacher in the quaint Dutch village of Sleepy Hollow. He is a Connecticut native and is known to be a good and fair teacher as well as a “psalmist” or one that teaches others to sing psalms at church. He has a great fondness for eating and for listening to fantastic tales. “His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region.”

My favorite line of the story is really long and is as follows: “All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and though he had seen many specters in his time, and had been more than once beset by Satan in his diverse shapes, in his lonely perambulations, yet daylight put an end to all of these evils; and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the devil and all of his works , if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was – a woman.”

I laughed out line at that line. Irving’s gift for writing includes really witty statements and great satire. He also has wonderful description of the scenery and characters, besides great fantastical tales.

The woman that caused poor Ichabod such angst was Katrina Van Tassel, the lovely daughter and only child of a rich Dutch farmer. Most of her appeal to Ichabod is tied up in the wealth of food that is at her parents’ house. He is a skinny man, with a giant hunger.

His rival for Katrina’s affections is Brom “Bones.” He is a local hero that is an accomplished horse rider, built, and handsome. Brom is not pleased to become the object of ridicule once Ichabod becomes a serious rival for Katrina’s affections.

The Van Tassels have giant party where ghost stories are shared right before Ichabod starts home on his borrowed beat-up horse. The favorite tail in Sleepy Hollow is about the local ghost, the headless horseman. The headless horseman was a Hessian (German mercenary in the American Revolution) that was beheaded and buried without his head in the church graveyard. The tale said that the headless horseman roamed at night looking for his head. As Ichabod is coming home, he has a very frightening ride through the dark woods followed by mysterious horsemen. As he gets a closer look, he realizes that the horseman is headless and is carrying his head. He tries to escape, but is hit by the head and falls off the horse. Ichabod is never seen again, but the townsfolk are able to figure out what happened by the hoof prints and the busted pumpkin that is left behind.

“. ..they came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him.”

An old farmer went to New York and came back to say that Ichabod was still alive and had a great life and career afterwards. Brom Bones and Katrina married, and Brom was known to laugh whenever the story of Ichabod was related, especially about the pumpkin.

What makes this story gothic? I think Ichabod is the hero/heroine. He is the naïve figure that beliefs in the spooky tales. He does get his happy ending although it is not quite what he expected. Katrina is the beautiful, virginal heroine with “vast expectations.” Brom Bones is the villain for thwarting the hero’s love interest. The setting is in the new world wilderness, or a snug Dutch settlement along the Hudson that is surrounded by a forest that spooks Ichabod.

Nathanial Hawthorne
Nathanial Hawthorne was born in Salem, home of the infamous Salem witch trials. His first ancestor in America, William Hathorne arrived in Salem in 1630 and persecuted Quakers. William’s son John was a Puritan interrogator in the Salem witch trials of 1692. The angst of the crimes of his ancestors made its way into Hawthorne’s most famous works. He first came to literary critical fame in 1837 when he published his Twice Told Tales. His most famous novel is The Scarlet Letter, a novel I hated in high school, but need to read again now that I’m older.

Hawthorne’s greatest achievement according to his friend Herman Melville was his “great power of blackness” or his portrayal of the dark landscapes of the human mind. He used masks, veils, shadows, emblems, ironies, and ambiguities to show the narrow difference between good and evil.

Ironically, Hawthorne is also buried in “Sleepy Hollow” cemetery, but in Concord Massachusetts, not Sleep Hollow New York.

Young Goodman Brown by Nathanial Hawthorne
Young Goodman Brown was first published in 1835, although it is set much earlier during the seventeenth century at a puritan settlement. Goodman Brown has left his wife Faith as he has work to do at night. He walks through dark woods at night and is joined by a mysterious stranger. He tells the stranger that he is late as “Faith kept me back awhile.” This stranger is in the guise of his dead grandfather and it is soon becomes apparent that it is the devil. The stranger knows all of Goodman Brown’s family, politicians, and catechism teacher quite well.

Goodman Brown soon finds himself at a meeting of “saints and sinners” in the forest. He is surprised to see his wife Faith at the meeting, but she mysteriously disappears. “My Faith is gone,” Goodman Brown shouts. A figure leading the meeting (the devil) tells Goodman Brown “Depending upon one another’s hearts, yet had still hoped that virtue was not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind.”

The next morning Goodman Brown can’t be sure whether he dreamed of the meeting or whether it really happened. Regardless, he lost all hope that night.

This was really a rather sad tale to lose all faith in God and mankind. I really loved how Goodman Brown’s wife name was Faith and that was used symbolically throughout the story as Goodman Brown tries to hold on and then loses his faith in mankind.

What makes this story gothic? The setting was the strange and scary wilderness with a meeting with the devil. You can’t get scarier than that! The hero is Goodman Brown with his seemingly innocent wife Faith as the heroine. The villain is the worse villain of all – the devil himself.

The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathanial Hawthorne
One day, the minister of a town, Mr. Hooper, appears on the street wearing a black veil. The townsfolk are disturbed and spend their time talking and wondering. “He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face.”

No one would ask Mr. Hooper why he was wearing a black veil, until finally his intended, Elizabeth dared to ask. He said that the “veil is a type and symbol,” and refused to take it off. They did not marry.

Mr. Hooper became a very effective pastor and was viewed with dread by his congregation. At the end of his life, Mr. Hooper was attended by his lost love Elizabeth and refused at the very end to take off his veil. He said that everyone has secret sins hidden behind “black veils” and that he was the only one that was truthful and upfront about it.

Another dark look at the nature of mankind that has the same message, mankind is evil. People make act good and hid their sins behind “black veils,” but overall they are bad.

What makes this story gothic? The setting doesn’t in this case, but the symbol and use of the black veil is very gothic. The hero is mysterious, but also seems like a villain. The heroine, Elizabeth, is young and virtuous and devotes her life to her love although they never marry. “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a perfect combination of thwarted love and the horror of a black veil.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, in-depth post, Laura! The black veil as a symbol does seem to be very Gothic, as you point out.