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3Defining Southern GothicDefining Southern Gothic Bridget M. MarshallThe term “Southern Gothic” has long been used to refer to a particu-lar subspecies of American Gothic, which itself is a subspecies of the Gothic, a genre of much-contested boundaries. Dating back to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the Gothic typically featured moldering castles, treacherous villains, distressed damsels, and dark secrets; the Gothic has proven to be a remarkably flexible genre that has adapted and flourished in a variety of countries across many cen-turies. Just as the term “Gothic” was originally used as a pejorative (in the sense that it was perceived as barbaric and superstitious), the earliest use of the term “Southern Gothic” was similarly dismissive. The phrase “the Southern Gothic school” first appeared in 1935 in a Saturday Reviewarticle by novelist Ellen Glasgow, who used the term negatively to refer to the writings of Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner, which she believed were filled with “aimless violence” and “fantastic nightmares” (360, 357).1The negative connotation initially was so strong that some authors even wished to not be included in the category of Southern Gothic at all; Eudora Welty, for one, insisted, “They better not call me that!” (qtd. in Donaldson 567). But “Southern Gothic,” like the Gothic more generally, eventually came to be a less derogatory term and is now much more widely used and generally ap-plied to literature dating back to the nineteenth century. David Punter and Glennis Byron describe Southern Gothic as “investigating mad-ness, decay and despair, and the continuing pressures of the past upon the present, particularly with respect to the lost ideals of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy and to the continuance of racial hostilities” (116–17). While “Southern Gothic” is a term readily recognized in popular culture, it has not been the focus of extensive literary criticism.2Scholars of the Gothic point to the time period of 1760 to 1820 as the heyday of the “classic” British Gothic;3these “classics” include such titles as Ann Radcliffe’sThe Mysteries of Udolpho(1794) and
Critical Insights4The Italian (1797), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk(1796), Mary Shel-ley’s Frankenstein(1816), and Robert Maturin’s Melmouth the Wan-derer(1820), among many, many others. This rise was followed by a secondary rise in the 1890s, consisting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde(1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), among others. Some of the earliest American Gothic texts include the novels of Charles Brockden Brown —in particular Wieland (1798) and Edgar Huntly(1799)—and those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, par-ticularly The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Southern Gothic then sprouts from this American Gothic in the mid-nineteenth cen-tury, with both long- and short-form fiction written by Edgar Allan Poe, William Gilmore Simms, and others.