[Following up the weekend’s great Guest Post, for this year’s Halloween series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of scary stories and their contexts. Hope you all have a boo-tiful holiday!]
On whether America can have home-grown horror—and where we might find it.
Nathaniel Hawthorne once famously complained (in the Preface to The Marble Faun) about “the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong … Romances need ruin to make them grow.” Given what he and his era meant by “the Romance,” it’s possible to paraphrase his point this way: America was, at least in the early 19th century but perhaps remains, too young, too devoid of a distant past and the ancient castles and ruins that come with it, to produce a Gothic literary tradition in the same way as Europe. Even Edgar Allan Poe, the Hawthorne contemporary and American Gothic writer who would seem so clearly to disprove this idea, set his most Gothic stories either abroad or (as in “The Fall of the House of Usher”) in an undefined place that could be anywhere (and feels more European than American to be sure). So it might indeed be fair to ask whether there can be a homegrown American Gothic.
It was of course in implied response to such a question that Grant Wood painted American Gothic (1930), one of the most famous and most ambiguous works of American art. Using his sister and the family dentist as his models for the iconic farmer and his wife, Wood created what seemed to be a simple and realistic portrait of two average (and somewhat unhappy and stiff, but not particularly mysterious) people. But then he gave it that title, and the whole thing suddenly became a great deal more complex and challenging. Is the title sarcastic, contrasting the simplicity and even boring-ness with those much more mysterious and compelling qualities Hawthorne had listed? Is it genuine, attempting to draw attention to the horrors that can lurk in quiet farmyards or families? Or is it an ironic combination of the two, recognizing that America does not have the overtly gothic qualities but might in its apparent simplicity and ordinariness possess a subtler and very different but ultimately no less horrifying quality?
Your mileage may vary, of course, and Wood’s painting will always remain open to those and many other possible interpretations. But I would argue for the ironic interpretation, not least because it fits with the painting’s own two contrasted yet interconnected levels (what’s on the canvas and what’s in the title). And I would connect it to our contemporary popular culture by noting the echoes of Wood’s title in the 21st century hit TV show American Horror Story. From its first season on, Story can be seen as an extended and far more explicit (this is the 21st century, and they’ve had full seasons of episodes to fill) representation of the idea that average American families and homes contain within them great and gothic horrors, that the scariest thing of all might not be a ruined castle full of vengeful ghosts and supernatural terrors, but a sunlit suburban home full of, well, those same things. I’d like to think that Hawthorne would be entirely on that board with that idea.
Next scary story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other scary stories you’d share?
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