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  • Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790–1861 by Siân Silyn Roberts
  • Ellen Malenas Ledoux (bio)
Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790–1861 Siân Silyn Roberts Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014 239 pp.

Within the past fifteen years, scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth century—such as William Keach, Helen Thomas, and Laura Doyle, among many others—have argued persuasively that Anglophone literatures of the Atlantic world must be considered part and parcel of the same cultural phenomenon because of the profound social, linguistic, and legal ties that bind the United Kingdom and the Americas. Siân Silyn Roberts herself has recently published a compelling argument for recognizing the gothic’s global scope and influence in a 2014 essay collection entitled Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century. Given Roberts’s expertise in the transnational gothic and her consistent reference to its import throughout Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790–1861, the book’s main claims and chosen primary sources appear incongruous with their scholarly context. On the one hand, Roberts notes that one cannot responsibly write about the American novel without reference to transatlantic exchange, and the book’s introduction explicitly denies an urge to describe American exceptionalism or “to assume that a drive toward literary autonomy produced an indigenous body of works in response to exceptional forms of national experience” (18, 26). Yet at the same time, Gothic Subjects argues for a uniquely American form of gothic subjectivity, suggesting that “novels on both sides of the Atlantic were attempting to work out problems in theories of the subject and government, but this cultural work arrived at a fundamentally different conceptual result in America than in British literary culture” (6). This different result forms when “works of gothic fiction imagine Americanness as an ability to change, adapt, travel, and even subsume individual difference and cultural particularity beneath forms of mass collectivity” through a process of “detaching identity from geographic origin, consanguinity, or exemplary political status” (7). In essence, she suggests that both the British and the American novel grapple with notions of individuality and sovereignty that stem from a common Scottish [End Page 612] Enlightenment (mostly Lockean) source, but that what the respective national narratives do with that struggle is distinctly different. Drawing on theoretical constructs from Leonard Tennenhouse (diaspora), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (rhizome), and Michel Foucault (population), Gothic Subjects argues that American representations of subjectivity are particularly performative, disrupted, relational, and abject. Roberts’s individual analyses within the ensuing chapters of the many fragmented gothic subjects extant in early American fiction—Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntly, Roderick Usher, Sheppard Lee, Hester Prynn, and Clotel, among others—are, in themselves, useful and robustly support her claims about how American literature struggles “to confront a disconnect between transmitted cultural forms and the new social setting in which they took root” (4).

Chapter 1 discusses American adaptations of British models of the social contract, suggesting that American authors such as Sally Barrell Keating Wood and Charles Brockden Brown use the gothic mode to investigate what individual sovereignty means in an ethnically and culturally diverse environment. Chapter 2 examines the concept of the wilderness and “going native,” arguing that American novels and captivity narratives challenge the notion of individual autonomy in favor of a model of subjectivity that is relational and resonant with indigenous American cultures. After the first two chapters establish a trend toward the “transitive, mutable model of the subject,” chapter 3 takes on textual challengers to this vision (113). Roberts argues that, rather than viewing subjectivity as adaptive, works by Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Montgomery Bird deploy “the cultural materials of the gothic to imagine a collective social body built from discrete and autonomous parts” (115). Yet as chapter 4’s discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) suggests, by the mid-nineteenth century, American authors began to contend with “the population”: those individuals who are members of a nation yet lack autonomy, for example, slaves, women, children, and political prisoners. These arguments are extended throughout the final chapter on slavery and...


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pp. 612-616
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