The American Gothic Tradition
The European fascination with death and its motif dates in
part to the Middle Ages' Dance of the Macabre, to the
celebreation and veneration of Christian martyrs as well as
the beliefs regarding witchcraft and the horrific threats of the
In the 18th Century, a popular fascination emerged in England,
giving rise to the "literature of lament" and the
Gothic Romance. The tomb and everything about it took on
a popular enchantment.
The thrill for things that go bump in the night spread to
America in the 18th Century.
A movement in literature, music, movies, comics, etc
towards the expression of the decadent natural world
and the obscure supernatural world.
Authors, musicians and directors use their imagination to
depict decadence and obscurity. The characters in the
novels, songs and movies wander the earth alone,
abandonded by God. It is always winter and the obscure,
supernatural world is far away - hidden to the ambivalent
"American Gothic" is a painting by Grant Wood from 1930.
Wood's inspiration came from a cottage designed in the
gothic revival style, with a distintive upper window.
The painting shows a farmer standing beside a woman
whose identity remains ambiguous, she might either be his
spinster daugther, or the farmer's wife.
The couple are in the traditional roles of men and women.
The man's pitchfork symbolizing hard labor, and the flowers
over the woman's right shoulder suggesting domesticity. It
is one of the most familiar images in the 20th Century
American Art, and one of the most parodied artworks within
American popular culture.
* Literary subgenre, also known as dark romanticism.
* Reaction to transcendental philosophical movement, which
was popular in the 19th century in America.
* Transcendentalism originated in New England and gained
its popularity up to late 1840s.
* Popular writers were: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.
* However, some other writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman
Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson found
transcendental beliefs too optimistic and egoistic and
modified them in their prose or poetry.
* Setting: large, drafty old houses instead of castles which
were not present in the American landscape.
*Atmosphere of mystery and suspense, the plot aims at
discovering the secrets lying within supernatural
* Ghostly legends, unexplainable events or horrifying
death which took place in the family estate are common
* Significance of omens, foreshadowing, dreams.
* Tales involving highly emotional states, such as terror,
anger, anxiety, feeling of some impending doom,
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
His literature represents some of the most innovate creation
to come from all American letters. He is the creator of the
"ideal short" story and he was also the inventor of the detective
His works are associated with death and horror, and at that
level, he finds a place among the Gothic writers.
His use of death as a central motif finds service only his
pursuit of the "effect" which suggests should be the motivation
behind the creation and development of any short
story. He fashions every element of his story to promote within
the reader his predetermined, emotional effect which
was the experience of melancholy or terror.
Poe chooses the unanticipated and undeserved death of
young maidens as the subject most likely to inspire his effect.
All the other elements -setting, characters, length or the work
itself, incident- should be fashioned to achieve the effect as
the proper climax and end of the story.
The same effect is the point of his poetry. He transport the
metrical patterns and refrains of musical composition into the
craft of writing poetry.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804- 1864).
This author explores the dark side of human soul in conflict with
itself. The Gothic machinery of witches and devilry are
metaphores for disturbance of all people experience in quest
of sanctuary in the comfort of some absolute virtue or truth.
Set frequently against English Puritanism and religiuos piety, his
characters reside in the cloudy community of ambiguity
and dualistic thinking.
The stories he wrote expose the limitations of narrow-
mindedness and absolutism in human relations.