Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Colonial, Antebellum, Postbellum Hauntings

In my Haunting America course, we're starting off with a fast tour through landmarks in the history of literary hauntings and possessions in and near the U.S.: after a look at Dickinson the first two weeks of the semester, early narratives on the Salem Witch Trials and the Virgin of Guadalupe started off our historical survey, followed quickly by views of Young Goodman Brown, La Llorona, and La Malinche, visits to Irving's Sleepy Hollow and Poe's House of Usher, and considerations of the structures of Stowe's and Chesnutt's haunted rooms and narratives. Our aim has been to identify similarities and differences in the uses of ghosts and spirits in colonial, antebellum and postbellum American literature as much as it has been to test out different approaches to reading hauntings--and in the coming weeks we'll look at works by Ambrose Bierce and Lafcadio Hearn to refine our initial ideas and methods. Here I'll recap some of the results of this tour and mention some specific juxtapositions and divergences worth exploring further.

The basic idea I've been trying to get across to the students to this point in the course is the difference the Enlightenment makes in the ways in which hauntings are treated in American literatures. Before the Enlightenment, the narrators of the stories of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the specters tormenting Salem Village residents take great pains to establish the reality and truth of the hauntings they represent. Although they differ in associating the hauntings with God and the Devil, they coincide in acknowledging yet attempting to overcome skeptics and doubters who look for other than supernatural explanations for the events they represent. Juan Diego, the protagonist of the Virgin of Guadalupe narrative, has to convince the colonial authorities in Mexico City to build a shrine to the Virgin in the mountains and after three visits he finally does (with the help of some well-timed miracles). Cotton Mather, although acknowledging the argument that specter evidence could be faked by the Devil or his agents ("who's to say whether the images of Scott Eric Kaufman and Joseph Kugelmass doing those unspeakable things to those texts over there are really their specters, or that they really sent them over there to do that?"), works to justify the Salem Witch Trial verdicts--and executions. These kinds of colonial narrators show up as protagonists in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," but now they are framed by Enlightenment-era narrators who cast Ichabod Crane's, Goodman Brown's, and Roderick Usher's susceptibility to belief in the reality of ghosts as irrationality (in the modes of humor, irony, and horror, respectively). Irving's anthropological emphasis, Hawthorne's historical allusions, and Poe's symbolic methods are used not to dismiss the irrational but instead to examine it, its effects, and its consequences. Antebellum literary hauntings, that is, stage the encounter between pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment modes of dealing with ghosts.

This basic distinction allowed me to frame the various uses of the gothic in Dickinson and Stowe as well as in Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe--by linking the explained or rational gothic and the supernatural gothic to Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment modes of thinking, I was able to help my students track the function of ghosts in their works and specify their related but distinctive fascinations with the shadows, blind spots, and nightmares of the Enlightenment. Before going into a few examples from Poe, Stowe, and Chesnutt, let me mention that these commonplaces in American literary history and Western intellectual history seemed to fascinate my students, who have interesting and complex relationships to the various religious traditions and beliefs about ghosts, spirits, and demons in Japan (I chose Hearn to end the "Postbellum Hauntings" unit precisely so we could revisit our earlier discussion of cultural assumptions in and about Western and Eastern hauntings).

What I think is so effective about Poe's use of the rationalistic narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not only the way that his narration leads the reader to expect the story to end one way, heightening the surprise and horror of the actual ending, but also the way in which his mistake about Roderick Usher at the end of the story raises the possibility that he might be mistaken in his earlier dismissals of Usher's beliefs. Without deviating from the explained Gothic at all--no ghosts, no spirits, no supernatural phenomena of any kind--Poe's story succeeds on aesthetic (his relation to Irving is kind of like Ringu's relation to Scream) and philosophical levels (he pushes Enlightenment-era ontologies and epistemologies to the point when you wonder if all our senses were as sensitive as Usher's whether we, too, would be overcome with horror and fear--wonder if his idea that an evil sentience pervades his ancestral grounds may well be entirely rational). The narrator's own reactions to the landscape and architecture of the House of Usher and to his repeated conversations with Usher point to the idea that a place can have an effect on your mind without any visible or sensible causes.

Decades later, at the end of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe attempts to politicize Poe's achievements. Critics have rightly focused on her adroit mixing of popular antebellum genres to account for the success of her novel--drawing everything from the novel of sentiment to the slave narrative, Stowe attempts to make her readers feel the evils and injustices of slavery, not just understand them conceptually. I haven't read enough Stowe criticism to see if scholars have been paying attention to her use of the gothic and the ghost story, but it is crucial to her novel's mediation of Enlightenment and Christian attacks on slavery--her linking of appeals to violations of rights to life, liberty, and property to the notions that slavery is a sin and that true Christians can neither hold slaves nor tolerate the existence of slavery. When Cassy and Emmeline conspire to manipulate Simon Legree into believing the garret in his mansion is haunted by the spirit of a slave woman he tortured, raped, and killed, they are participating in one of the classic conventions of the explained Gothic--but instead of the vulnerable protagonist being tormented by a conspiracy out to make her believe she is being haunted, here the vulnerable female slaves are the ones who are protecting themselves by making the garret the safest place for them to hide from the slave catchers trying to hunt them down after they are seen trying to escape the plantation. Stowe takes us behind the scenes to see how Cassy stages all the supposedly supernatural events that heighten Legree's guilt, horror, and fear--this is the explained Gothic with a vengeance--and asserts that it is Legree's atheism that makes him particularly susceptible to her manipulations. In so doing, she echoes Poe's language--and provides some imagery that Dickinson may well be responding to in her Civil War-era poem #670 (the revolver that is no protection against spirits, the locked door that is no protection against your own internal haunting)--in a way that mixes their philosophical and psychological emphases with her own social and political projects. Cassy's staging of an "authentic ghost story," as one late chapter title proclaims it to be, enables her and Emmeline to escape the fate of the tortured and murdered slave woman--and the martyrdom of Uncle Tom by Legree that is framed by the narrative of their escape--even as it shows the consequences on Legree of his own actions. Stowe's hauntings emphasize the horrors of slavery and install the metaphor of the slaveholder haunted by his sins and the nation haunted by the peculiar institution.

Oops, imoto just woke up. More on Chesnutt later!


The Constructivist said...

Got a possible plagiarism thing going on: this post links here in the title but just cuts and pastes in the body. Weird and annoying. Asked the person to take it down or properly attribute it--we'll see what happens.

The Constructivist said...

Resolved peacefully.