AMERICAN SOUTHERN GOTHIC LITERATURE M. Marsham XXXXXXXXXX
LECTURE No. 2 -- Elements of the Southern Gothic Genre of Literature
As a precursor to the Chickamauga Assignment which is the first entry in our Southern Gothic Literature a History of the Deep South is necessary to understand the American Southern Gothic literary genre we are examining in this course.
In 1861 in reaction to the North’s insistence on abolishment of slavery and in protest of the inauguration of A
aham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States, seven Southern “cotton” states that relied on slave labor for their wealth SECEDED from the United States. Those seven states known as the DEEP SOUTH are: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The DEEP SOUTH states formed a “new and separate country” called The Confederate States of America (CSA) and when the CIVIL WAR began (by South Carolina firing the first shot) the CSA was joined by four “upper” Southern states: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to form a new makeup of 11 states in the CSA.
Most of our Southern gothic stories originate in the DEEP SOUTH by virtue of their geographical location AND their adherence to the Southern “ideal”. As a reader of this genre you must take note of the birth State of the Southern Gothic authors as well as the Southern State locale of their stories to get the full impact of what is being said. This confluence of information will also be useful for The Final.
Many literary analysts have argued that the adaptation of the original (European) gothic format was particularly suited to the American South because the pre-Civil War plantation world (the antebellum period) provided Southern writers with an analogy to the medieval settings available to European gothic writers and as you saw in The Castle of Otranto the medieval period of Walpole’s story suited the plot). The images of these antebellum pristine palatial plantations
contrasted with their post-Civil War decay were evocative of the ruined castles of nineteenth-century
Gothic buildings that had fallen out of fashion a century earlier.
Finally, while all of the historical information above is relevant to Southern Gothic literature in one way or another, there is a constant theme of distu
ed personalities that leads Southern Gothic writing to also be known for its damaged and/or delusional characters and while there are only a relatively few writers who solidly belong to the genre of Southern Gothic literature, interestingly the majority of those writers themselves have unusual personal backstories that mi
or their literary characters. Therefore it is important in this study of literature to closely examine the authors’ biographies as well.
So. When you add Southern author biography information to traditional elements of the European gothic genre to the details of the pre- and post-Civil War South mentioned above you have: Southern Gothic Literature.
Definition and Characteristics of Southern Gothic Literature.
Southern Gothic literature is a genre of Southern writing with stories that often focus on grotesque themes; and while it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional, characters.
Although inspired by Gothic literature, Southern Gothic does not dwell on supernatural and suspense. Rather there is oftentimes a dark humor in the stories. It follows the idea of exposing the problems of society, but does so by developing complex characters. The authors explore the behaviors of (usually strange) people and the social order of the South. Through their stories, the authors try to show that the social order is fragile and the realities behind it are actually distu
ing. The authors work to point out truths of Southern culture and its moral shortcomings. The themes of this genre are developed around these goals.
The stories of Southern Gothic are, of course, set in the South. There are many Southern elements in the stories, including dialect, habits, and personalities. The history of the South is represented through the settings of the stories.
The characters are usually complex, and some of them are mentally unstable. Many of the characters may also be
oken in spirit and struggling to find a place in society once again. The morality of characters is also often questioned. Through their characters, the authors examine the harm that people can do to each other. There are also many characters who are seen as innocent, such as children and the vulnerable adult and there is a struggle for their place in the world. Whether mentally unstable, dark, or innocent, the characters try to make sense of the environment around them and the society in which they live.
The plots of Southern Gothic stories can be distu
ing and some do include supernatural elements. They often contain ironic events as a writing style. Many of the events contained in the stories are linked to racism, violence, and poverty. (See the characteristics of Southern Gothic Literature outlined below and also via link in Course Materials.)
A simplified definition of Southern Gothic: http:
Characteristics of Southern Gothic literature:
· isolation and marginalization
· violence and crime
· sense of place
· freakishness and the grotesque
· destitution and decay
· oppression and discrimination
· conflict with Christian religiosity
Elements of traditional European Gothic literature (So. Goth version in bold text):
1. Setting in a castle, primarily in dungeons or cellars, caves below ground level. (So. Goth: old plantations)
2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense. (So. Goth: mysterious person)
3. An ancient prophecy (So. Goth: superstitions)
4. Omens, portents, visions. (So. Goth: superstitions)
5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events. [So. Goth: events of foreboding]
6. High, even overwrought emotion. (So. Goth: distressed Southern personalities)
7. Women in distress and sometimes threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. (So. Goth: pressure of gender roles in Southern society)
8. The metonymy of gloom and ho
or. [So Goth: Southern History]
9. Subtle or overt Christian religiosity. (So. Goth: religion usually as prominent as race)
Significant Southern Gothic authors include William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers but their cues are taken from predecessors like Am
ose Bierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe. We see the Southern Gothic style of writing even in the modern day through the works of authors like Cormac McCarthy.
Additionally these thematic concerns have made their way into music, TV, and film (some of which are adaptations of a Southern Gothic author’s work). These include movies like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, TV shows like True Blood, American Ho
or Story, the first season of True Detective and The Vampire Diaries. Bands like Murder by Death have even introduced Southern Gothic themes into their music both in terms of style and subject matter.
Southern Gothic literature relies heavily on imagery and symbolism. Charles Reagan Wilson, Ph.D., Cook Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi says that, "In the Southern Gothic tradition, everything has meaning…The abandoned plantation house isn't there just to be spooky. It represents our fixation with history” (Southern Living). You will find rich symbolism throughout pieces in this literary tradition. For instance, in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” the decaying home also alludes to the physical decay (and perhaps moral decay) of the Usher family.
It is common in Southern Gothic literature, to find innocence su
ounded by cruelty and co
uption. “When southern gothic authors examine the human condition, they see the potential to do harm. Morality is in question for many characters. A major theme for southern gothic writers hinges on innocence and the innocent’s place in the world— where they are often asked to act as redeemer” (Oprah’s Book Club). However, through the lens of these authors the question often becomes can this co
upt, tainted world even be saved? Can innocence be victorious? Conclusions vary according to author.
We officially begin entrance into the genre of Southern Gothic Literature with Am
ose Bierce’s Nineteenth Century very short tale Chickamauga XXXXXXXXXXit is also in Our Online Li
ary and ASSIGNMENTS Sp’18). This short story proves to be one of the first credible examples of the genre with its plot of events that su
ound an unlikely child-protagonist set against a background of the Civil War.
SPECIAL NOTE FOR THOSE OF YOU NOT FAMILIAR WITH LITERATURE IN GENERAL, NINETEENTH CENTURY WRITING IN PARTICULAR, NOR OF COURSE, SOUTHERN LITERATURE: You must pay close attention to the language being used to understand what is being said since nineteenth century writing is ve
ose -- to say the least -- but with that ve
iage comes a rich vocabulary that has probably disappeared from traditional writing:
Then, for more than an hour, he wandered with e
ing feet through the tangled
undergrowth, till at last, overcome by fatigue, he lay down in a na
etween two rocks, within a few yards of the stream and still grasping his toy
sword, no longer a weapon but a companion, so
ed himself to sleep.
The above passage from “Chickamauga” describes the little boy protagonist who gets lost in the woods after playing soldier with his make-shift wooden “sword”. Hopefully you will know that “e
ing feet” means he walked in the wrong direction, and that “tangled undergrowth” means the thick wooded area. The rest of the passage should be self-explanatory and evocative of the boy’s plight. Finally, please, please understand that a character is not black unless he or she is so identified by the word black, Negro, or some other label chosen by a character in the story. (Be prepared for the use of the “N” word by a few Southern characters.) Note that the context of any term used is extremely important for full comprehension of our literature. Mistakes of interpretation will cost you the comprehension needed to succeed in the assignments. Of course I will answer any questions about the work. Just post the question to the Professor’s Office Hours DB well before the assignment is due and I will respond promptly.
It is not required but if you wish a glance at Southern history from the perspective of the South you can view a film about the Civil War called “Drums of the Deep South” HERE. (A link is also in the “Movies” section of our Bb course site.) It is a mid-20th century (1950’s) film, 1.5 hours long with a storyline focus on two friends who wind up on opposite sides of the Civil War. The subplot is a melodramatic love story. It is a very mediocre movie but it gives a nice picture of a delusional South that sees itself as the victim of a villainous