The American Gothic Tradition

Happy 4th of July! On this day in 1776, the founding fathers declared their intention to create a nation that would be independent from Great Britain. Though as they signed the Declaration, I doubt any of them were thinking about creating an independent literary tradition. Nonetheless, as our country began developing its own political and economic system, it also began developing its own culture—and that includes its own literature. American Gothic, apart from being an infamous painting of a dreary farmer couple, is a unique subgenre in the Gothic tradition that is markedly American. Today, I thought I would celebrate this patriotic holiday by sharing with you the history of the American Gothic tradition and some of its most prominent members.

American Gothic is more than just a creepy painting.
American Gothic is more than just a creepy painting. (Image credit: Freaking News)

Though the Gothic novel is generally associated with the creepy castles and misty moors of the Old World, a unique strain of this literary tradition began to emerge in America almost as soon as the nation was created. American Gothic fiction generally takes place in a distinctly American setting and tends to be characterized by themes and anxieties that were especially important to American discourse, such as religion, racial tension, nature and wilderness, and rationalism vs. the irrational. The genre also became blended with Dark Romanticism, an offshoot of the Romantic movement that focused on melancholia, insanity, human fallibility, and the grotesque, all grounded in the individual.

Just fifteen years after the end of the American Revolution, the first Gothic novel written by an American author was published: Wieland by Pennsylvanian Quaker Charles Brockden Brown. It takes place in the late colonial era and follows a family of religious dissenters who begin hearing mysterious voices. As often happens in Gothic novels, murder and tragedy ensue. The story deals not only with the particularly pertinent fear of religious fanaticism, but also plays with some of the contemporary theories of psychology as it examines the causes and mechanisms of insanity.

Perhaps more familiar to modern American readers is the classic American ghost tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, published a couple decades later. Irving’s short story takes place in a little town in the New York countryside that to this day remains synonymous with the tale. Though written while Irving was living abroad in England, the story emphasizes its American-ness by casting as the main horror the ghost of a man who died fighting in the American Revolution.

In even more familiar territory is the man you probably all thought of when I said “American Gothic”—Edgar Allan Poe. King of the macabre, the melancholy, and the deteriorating mind, Poe wrote a number of stories and poems throughout the 1830s and ’40s. He launched the detective genre, hinted at science fiction, contributed significantly to the growth of horror, and can be credited with bringing popular attention to many of these genres. Writing shortly after Poe was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Closely tied to the Romantic movement, Hawthorne’s stories tended to focus on inherent evil and sin, drawing on America’s unique religious history. “Young Goodman Brown,” set in Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials, is a particularly dispiriting story about a man who stumbles upon a witches’ sabbath and finds that he recognizes all of the attendees. The story emphasizes Hawthorne’s eerie connection to the trials, at which his great-great-grandfather was a judge.

In the twentieth century, the American Gothic tradition has given us such great writers as H.P. Lovecraft—who blends horror and sci-fi often set in his native New England; Stephen King—considered the father of contemporary horror fiction; and Anne Rice—who gave birth to the modern vampire romance.

Following a different evolutionary branch, this tradition also gave rise to the Southern Gothic—a distinctly American subgenre of Gothic fiction that takes place in the American South. Works of Southern Gothic literature generally explore social issues and critically examine the values of Southern society. Common themes include aristocratic decline, racial tensions, moral and physical decay, and the grotesque. Among the prominent writers of this subgenre are William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor.

Who are your favorite American authors of gothic fiction? And how are you celebrating Independence Day? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “The American Gothic Tradition”

  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne is a favorite of mine. His short stories never disappoint me. One of the best is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. For contemporary authors I love Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, a five star story!

    Love your blog!

    1. Thanks, Paula! I’ve been meaning to read The Yellow Wallpaper for a while now. I haven’t read any Susan Hill, I’ll have to check her out.

      Enjoy your 4th of July weekend!

      1. I agree. I couldn’t get The Yellow Wallpaper out of my head for a long time. More modern day, but I remember my skin crawling when I read The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice.

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