- The African American Ecogothic of E. Levi Brown’s “At the Hermitage”
The August 1893 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine contained works by the likes of Richard Harding Davis, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Thomas Nelson Page. It also included a short story by an otherwise unknown author named E. Levi Brown who had contributed an enthralling southern gothic tale called “At the Hermitage.”1 But who was E. Levi Brown? In the 127 years since the story appeared in Harper’s—one of the elite literary magazines of the day—both it and its author have fallen into the shadows. Apparently Brown emerged just long enough to publish this single, masterful story before receding back into the fog of obscurity.
Magazine advertisements promoting the August 1893 issue of Harper’s offer a meager, if tantalizing, set of clues. The June 23, 1893, issue of the American Stationer describes Brown as “the wife of a colored minister in the South who has constructed a tale of unusual power out of the dark superstitions of her race.”2 And a largely identical mention in the United States Miller reads, “Mrs. E. Levi Brown . . . the wife of a colored minister in the South, has constructed a tale of unusual power out of the superstitions of her race. It presents a view of the Southern negro from the standpoint of a more intimate and sympathetic knowledge than has belonged to previous writers in this field.”3 These snippets of ad copy, repeated almost verbatim across a few periodicals of the time, serve as the only hints to the mystery of Brown’s identity.4 William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden reprinted “At the Hermitage” in their 1907 story collection, Shapes That Haunt the Dusk, but in their brief introduction to that volume they strangely refer to the author as “Mr. Brown” and offer no additional leads.5 Following this reprint Brown seems to have disappeared entirely, leaving behind no further work and no further clues [End Page 143] to her identity. Did she write other stories? Where in the South did she live? Who was her minister husband mentioned in the ads? These and other questions remain unanswered. For now, “At the Hermitage”—a story of skill and nuance that seems the product of an experienced writer—remains Brown’s only known work.
Harper’s own advertisement, in its July 1893 issue, provides essentially the same information as the others but further underscores the novelty of Brown’s race: “Especially interesting by reason of its merit as well as of its authorship, will be Mrs. E. Levi Brown’s story, entitled, ‘At the Hermitage,’ based upon the dark superstitions of her race—a narrative of idiomatic simplicity and thrilling interest.”6 But simplicity is hardly an apt descriptor for “At the Hermitage.” It’s a complex tale that—in ways similar to many of the stories of her contemporary Charles W. Chesnutt (e.g., “The Dumb Witness” and “The Sheriff’s Children”)—presents a southern gothic fantasy mixed with the all-too-real miseries of African American life in the postbellum South. There’s certainly nothing simple about how Brown abandons many of the tired conceits so common to regional tales. She eschews the frame tale format, first-person narration, cartoonish stock characters, and the peculiar brand of humor meant to appeal to bigoted tastes. Instead, in a story that boasts three African American women as its principal characters, Brown crafts a narrative both original and horrific. The fact that “At the Hermitage” is a newly rediscovered short story originally published in the pages of Harper’s in 1893 and presented at that time as a tale by the “wife of a colored minister in the South” makes it a notable work.7 But when we read the story and find within it Brown’s deft confluence of racial, gendered, and environmental concerns, we recognize it as masterpiece of southern gothic fiction, one that when read by the light of twenty-first-century criticism reveals a multitude of critical possibilities.
One compelling approach to “At the Hermitage” is to consider how it delivers a narrative ripe...