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Gothic Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

  • Author(s): Fonken, Brian
  • Advisor(s): Thomas, Brook
  • et al.

My dissertation takes a new approach to the study of the American gothic, focusing on the rhetorical strategies by which authors chose to deploy the conventions of gothic writing. While many investigations into the American gothic presuppose a national subject, whose fears and desires can be located and diagnosed, I argue that such a subject is incoherent, and that the psychic cartography of fear in nineteenth-century America varied widely from North to South, master to slave, carpetbagger to scalawag, white supremacist to freedperson. That being the case, it makes sense to read the gothic not as an essential feature of the writing this dissertation examines, but as a set of tropes and conventions which circulated through a variety of texts depicting spectacles of horror or reaching out to readers’ sense of fear. I call gothic episodes all chapters, scenes, and charged moments from literary works and broader print culture whose tropic or affective schema trace back to Gothic Revival texts. Significantly, these texts were well-known to nineteenth-century American readers, whose literate response to the appearance of gothic conventions was frequently expected by the writers deploying them. To supplement the critical narrative about the gothic that explains its power as originating in the psychologically repressed, I want to emphasize how writers rationally employed the mode to create calculated effects. I read these episodes as primarily persuasive rather than mimetic and thereby recover the rhetorical import of the gothic as understood by the authors who deployed its conventions. The following chapters examine how gothic episodes were put to work by abolitionists, proslavery advocates, freedmen, Klansmen, carpetbaggers, and advocates of African American civil rights, and I show how gothic effects were calculated to play upon diverse fears, prejudices, and desires for a variety of strategic purposes, from energizing supporters of political causes to manipulating the historical record of Reconstruction. Gothic episodes appear early on in a variety of American literary traditions, putting the so-called “literature of fear” to work in shaping the history and culture of the American nineteenth century.

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