Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Finding the Gothic in America

In 1798-99, Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey (published in 1817). The plot concerns a young woman, Catherine Moreland, an avid reader of gothic novels, who imposes the conventions of the genre on the family at a house she visits in the country. A spoof of the popular books of the era, the novel is an indication of just how absorbing the gothic was for young women.

Gothic novels were also popular with young women in the United States, who were entranced by the romantic landscapes of castles and ancient ruins, the supernatural, murder and a heroine in danger. But unlike English aficionados, Americans had none of the medieval architecture and ruins which seemed so necessary to set the scene.

In 1808 Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, Rebecca's friend, visited a country house in New Jersey called Mount Pleasant. Built probably during the first half of the eighteenth century, the mansion was as close to a Gothic castle as anyone was going to get in America at that time. The building no longer exists but we know it through Washington Irving's Salmagundi stories about the estate he called "Cockloft Hall" and the eccentric family who lived there. He describes the "ancient edifice" as "being so patched and repaired that it has become as full of whims and oddities as its tenants....Whenever the wind blows, the old mansion makes a most perilous groaning, and every storm makes a day's work for the carpenter....A propensity to save everything that bears the stamp of family antiquity, has accumulated an abundance of trumpery and rubbish, with which the house is incumbered from the cellar to the garret...." Irving is writing for comic effect, but since his friend Gouverneur Kemble had recently inherited Mt. Pleasant, he and his friends spent much of their leisure time there and knew it well.

The house did seem to have had something gothic about it to Eliza Fenno, and it almost immediately stirred her imagination. She wrote to Rebecca: "Though there are no trap doors or winding passages and I firmly believe there never was blood shed within the walls, my imagination converted it into one of those castles I have read of." But, she continued, a "group of beaux arrived and dissipated the ghosts." Unlike Austen's seventeen-year-old Catherine Moreland, a rural minister's daughter, Eliza Fenno was a twenty-one-year-old New Yorker who was playing with the idea of the gothic.

Nevertheless, her remarks show the longing Americans would feel for the ancient and the supernatural, neither of which was easily summoned up in the new republic. Charles Brockden Brown, America's first novelist, had already developed the American gothic in Wieland, which dealt with murder and manipulation, and other popular novelists would continue the tradition in an American setting. Poe, who had lived in England for several years as a boy, was most at ease with the castles and other props of the English gothic, but perhaps the most successful of the attempts to naturalize the genre are the novels and stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne who found an authentic American gothic in the Puritan New England of the seventeenth century.

(Eliza's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

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