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DESACRALIZING THE AMERICAN GOTHIC: AN ICONOGRAPHIC APPROACH TO EDGAR HUNTLY Dennis Berthold* It is commonplace to consider the figures and landscapes in American gothic fiction as simple transformations of English motifs and images . Thus, the mouldering castle becomes the rude log cabin, banditti become Indians, the lonely moor becomes the dark forest, and the dungeon becomes the pit or cave. These parallels and many others have been widely noted in the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown, particularly in Edgar Huntly, a novel generally considered the first to exploit the American frontier for fictive purposes.1 In fact, these gothic conventions are so evident in Edgar Huntly that some critics believe the landscapes owe less to the American frontier than to the novels of Ann Radcliffe.2 The cliché "American gothic" is thus weighted toward "gothic," with all the mythic, symbolic, and psychological associations that term has come to imply, while "Americanness" is secondary, a simple modification of the substantive term. Such a label inevitably steers the critic and reader toward European, specifically English, sources and models for Brown's peculiar brand of fiction and away from native materials and images, except as those images reify English patterns and motifs. The images in a pioneering novel such as Edgar Huntly are consequently valued primarily as symbols, outward, physical representations of the hero's inner psychic state. It seems safe to say this is the established approach to the tale.3 The grounds for the psycho-symbolic interpretation are too narrow for consensus, however, as some recent critics have noticed. Norman S.' Grabo, who generally relishes the psychological complexity of Brown's narratives, recognizes that "there is an obvious reciprocity between [Edgar Huntly's] mental states and external conditions. The reciprocity is such that each seems to inform and symbolize the other, and we never quite know whether nature is being internalized or his emotional and mental states are being externalized. The process seems to work both ways at once."4 Grabo's observation implicitly grants at least a fifty percent reality to nature and suggests that, despite all the projections of deranged emotional states on the landscape, there may in fact be some actual "derangement" in the landscape itself. Gothic terror may inhere 'Dennis Berthold is a Professor of English at Texas A & M University. He has published on American fiction in The William and Mary Quarterly, Arizona Quarterly, and other journals. He is currently completing a book on the picturesque in nineteenthcentury American letters. 128Dennis Berthold in the American scene, not just in the narrator's vision, what George Toles calls a "distorted neurasthenic perception of the wilderness."5 If this is so, the phrase "American gothic" unduly emphasizes European artistic forms over American realities. By linking and subordinating place to genre, the label presupposes a distinction in form conditioned by place. One may, however, recast this as a link between genres, following the lead of such critics as Ursula Brumm and Paul Witherington, who have seen in Edgar Huntly elements of the picaresque and the realistic. Witherington, for example, suggests that the novel's structure owes something to Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry, while Brumm thinks its scenery functions simultaneously as gothic antagonist and realistic setting. According to Brumm, "Edgar Huntly is not a gothic romance according to English models; nor is Brown's nature simply a haunted forest transplanted to America."6 Neither Witherington nor Brumm develops this thesis in detail, but both understand that Brown's symbolism is often subordinated to an early realism that portrays figures and scenes from the actual American landscape. Viewed this way, Edgar Huntly may be seen as enlisting other genres in the service of translating the gothic for American needs and purposes. This admixture distinguishes many American novels, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables to William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, in which gothic terror springs from carefully described , particularized American locales and regions. "American gothic" readily subdivides into "New England gothic" or "Southern gothic" and develops subsets of conventional images and motifs: the ruined plantation or the stern Puritan, for example. Gothicism in America has been subject to those same nationalist demands for local and regional landscapes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 127-138
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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