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Canadian Review of American Studies 1992Special Issue, Part II 239 "One Need Not be A Chamber-to be Haunted-": AmericanWomen's Supernatural Fiction CatherineLundie It has long been recognized that in the nineteenth century, the literary possibilities of the supernatural were capitalized on by representatives of the "American pantheon," 1 Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. The supernatural provided them with a forum in which to investigate otherwise unapproachable moral and psychological issues. Yet these men were not alone; countless women writers also had enormous success with supernatural writing. Harriett Beecher Stowe, Harriett Prescott Spofford, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are just a few of the womenwho wrote ghost stories in Victorian America. Their exclusionfrom critical discussions of the American ghost story is somewhat odd, and can perhaps be accounted for by a general critical prejudice against nineteenthcentury American women's writing. Twentieth-century critics have a long historyof equating "popular nineteenth-century American woman writer[sr with "sentimental nonentity.'' 2 The omission is doubly distressing in light of the fact that British women writers of the supernatural have never lacked for partisans. As Jessica Amanda Salmonson notes, "women's dominion over the ghost story in Victorian England has been widely acknowledged." And, she adds wryly, "though few seem to have noticed it, this was true in the United States as well" (1989, xii).3 With very few exceptions, however, American anthologists of the ever-popular ghost story continue to marginalizewomen writers, or to exclude them from their collections altogether.4 240 Canadian Review of American Studies Critics of the supernatural story see the popularity of the form, particularly at the turn of the century, as closely linked to cultural crisis.5 The turn of the century was, they explain, a time when scientific rationalism was replacing Christian faith; a time of scepticism and disillusionment about the stability of the new technological civilization; a time of disruption of the culture and society as people knew it. Although the majority of these critics are referring to British supernatural writing, critics of American writing make much the same argument. The editors of The Haunted Dusk claim that "the disorienting effect of the supernatural encounter in fiction seems to reflect some deeper disorientations in the culture at large. The nineteenth century, after all, was the scene of great debates between faith and doubt, religion and science, transcendentalism and positivism" (Kerr, Crowley , and Crow 1983, 2-3). Material and spiritual conceptions of the world were locked in continual debate, leading to a perception of the world as dualistic, something which was reflected in men's supernatural fiction of the time. Thus these stories, the critics point out, are characterized·by the tension between reason and unreason, science and spirituality, conscious and unconscious, natural and supernatural. This "tension" is almost always resolved on the "material" side, in a way favourable to the rational and the knowable. Ghost stories by American women, a body of writing which is finally being examined, is, like that by American male writers, liberated by the use of the supernatural to speak of taboo issues.6 Yet women's fiction is not informed by the dualistic thinking of men's fiction which, for the most part, seeks to establish one side of the dichotomy by denying or discrediting the other. 7 The epistemology of women's supernatural stories is entirely different. Their writing, as Rosemary Jackson explains, explores and thereby threatens to dissolve many of the structures upon which social definitions of reality depend, those rigid boundaries between life and death, waking and dream states, self and not-self, bodily and non-bodily existence, past and future, reason and madness, that have insisted on the substantiality of matter-which is all there is to a materialistic mind-and the insubstantiality of spirit. (1989, xviii) CatherineLundie I 241 Although the employment of a different epistemology can be seen merely as a critique of men's ghost stories, its significance is, I believe, more farreaching .American women's ghost stories make a deliberate attempt to extend our sense of the human, the real, beyond the earth-bound limits "of male science, language, and rationalism" (Jackson 1989, xviii)). Thus, in these...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 239-278
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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