- History of the Gothic: American Gothic by Charles L. Crow
As horror literature and film rise in popularity, Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic attempts to deepen our understanding of the context of Gothic in the United States. Part of the History of the Gothic [End Page 132] series, American Gothic does not pretend to be a compendium of all Gothic history. Instead Crow follows four specific time periods in American history, tying them to Gothic literature. The series goal is actually to discover “groundbreaking scholarship” in the genre. Crow accomplishes this goal through careful connection between history and Gothic, showing the shifting definitions through numerous examples.
Crow spends time near the beginning bringing new scholars to the field of Gothic literature up to date. Specifically, he uses three key terms as a foundation for his argument: “the sublime, the uncanny and the grotesque” (5). These three ideas form what he perceives as the way to define the Gothic. Despite this focus Crow emphasizes that the most important element of Gothic literature is its effect on the reader, “dread, horror, terror and the uncanny” (2). What his study establishes is how works such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” can be about Gothic themes without themselves being Gothic, while other works that lack the typical plotline still evoke Gothic emotions.
In his first chapter, “American Gothic to the Civil War,” Crow relates each work to Puritan ideals, clearly showing how the Gothic is always defined by its cultural context. Gothic in early American literature often works with the Puritan belief of wilderness as evil. In the next section realism and the Gothic are depicted as foils to each other. Each time period suggests the way Gothicism acts against dominant cultural ideas. “American Gothic and Modernism” shifts to film and literary depictions of the Gothic, pointing out how they influence each other. In his final section Crow moves the Gothic into its much more present understanding, not tied to national boundaries so much as to regional cultures.
What makes Crow’s work so successful is his use of examples from little-known authors, as well as the obvious contributors such as Poe. He sets the stage for a better understanding of western American literature with its sometimes-eerie portrayals of landscape. Because much of his book focuses on eastern authors, there is much room for expansion. What Crow may miss in using western examples, he makes up for in his compilation of Gothic tropes. From masks to wilderness places to revealed secrets, each motif can be easily transferred to works about the North American West. Not [End Page 133] only has Crow provided the list, but he has given the complex history behind each theme. In this is Crow’s greatest strength: his work has the potential to expand into many other areas of study. American Gothic does more than try to define the Gothic; it places Gothic tradition firmly within American literature, showing how the genre morphed and changed as it moved across the Atlantic.