Southern Gothic is a mode or genre prevalent in literature from the early 19th century to this day. Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation. While related to both the English and American Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic is uniquely rooted in the South’s tensions and aberrations. During the 20th century, Charles Crow has noted, the South became “the principal region of American Gothic” in literature. The Southern Gothic brings to light the extent to which the idyllic vision of the pastoral, agrarian South rests on massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Southern Gothic texts also mark a Freudian return of the repressed: the region’s historical realities take concrete forms in the shape of ghosts that highlight all that has been unsaid in the official version of southern history. Because of its dark and controversial subject matter, literary scholars and critics initially sought to discredit the gothic on a national level. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) became the first Southern Gothic writer to fully explore the genre’s potential. Many of his best-known poems and short stories, while not placed in a recognizable southern setting, display all the elements that would come to characterize Southern Gothic. While Poe is a foundational figure in Southern Gothic, William Faulkner (1897–1962) arguably looms the largest. His fictional Yoknapatawpha County was home to the bitter Civil War defeat and the following social, racial, and economic ruptures in the lives of its people. These transformations, and the resulting anxieties felt by Chickasaw Indians, poor whites and blacks, and aristocratic families alike, mark Faulkner’s work as deeply Gothic. On top of this, Faulkner’s complex, modernist, labyrinthine language creates in readers a similarly Gothic sense of uncertainty and alienation. The generation of southern writers after Faulkner continued the exploration of the clashes between Old and New South. Writers like Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), Carson McCullers (1917–1967), and Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) drew on Gothic elements. O’Connor’s work is particularly steeped in the grotesque, a subgenre of the Gothic. African American writers like Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Richard Wright have had their own unique perspective on the Southern Gothic and the repressed racial tensions at the heart of the genre. Southern Gothic also frames the bleak and jarringly violent stories by contemporary so-called Rough South writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Dorothy Allison, William Gay, and Ron Rash. A sense of evil lurks in their stories and novels, sometimes taking on the shape of ghosts or living dead, ghouls who haunt the New Casino South and serve as symbolic reminders of the many unresolved issues still burdening the South to this day.
Thomas Ærvold Bjerre
Xavier Aldana Reyes
The writings covered to by the umbrella term “Gothic” are so varied in style, thematic interests, and narrative effects that an overarching definition becomes problematic and even undesirable. The contemporary Gothic, drawing on an already fragmented and heterogenic artistic tradition, is less a genre than a vestigial type of writing that resuscitates older horrors and formulas and filters them through the echo chambers of a modern preoccupation with the social value of transgressive literature. In a century when the Gothic has once again exploded in popularity, and following a period of strong institutionalization of its study in the 1990s and 2000s, establishing some of its key modern manifestations and core concerns becomes a pressing issue. The Gothic may be fruitfully separated from horror, a genre premised on the emotional impact it seeks to have on readers, as a type of literature concerned with the legacy of the past on the present—and, more importantly, with the retrojecting of contemporary anxieties into times considered more barbaric. These have increasingly manifested in neo-Victorian fictions and in stories where settings are haunted by forgotten or repressed events but also by weird fiction, where encounters with beings and substances from unplumbed cosmic depths lead to a comparable temporal discombobulation. The intertextual mosaics of the contemporary Gothic also borrow from and recycle well-known myths and figures such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in order to show their continued relevance or else to adapt their recognizable narratives to the early 21st century. Finally, the Gothic, as a type of literature that is quickly becoming defined by the cultural work it carries out and by its transnational reach, has found in monstrosity, especially in its mediation of alterity, of traumatic national pasts and of the viral nature of the digital age, a fertile ground for the proliferation of new nightmares.
Carol J. Singley
Edith Wharton, a literary realist and naturalist, was a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction whose work helped to define a major intellectual and aesthetic movement at the turn of the 20th century. As a chronicler of society’s manners and mores as well as morals, Wharton was adept at portraying male and female characters in stifling social situations, variously of their own and others' making. She was especially interested in ways that society's standards shape women's choices, and she boldly articulated characters' longings for roles that give fuller rein to the range of women's emotional and sexual needs. An avid reader of Darwinian science, philosophy, and religion, she often depicted characters trapped by environment or biology but aspiring—vaguely or inarticulately—toward elusive ideals. During her literary career, which spanned over fifty years, Wharton published twenty-five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Innocence (1920), eighty-eight short stories, three volumes of poetry, and numerous volumes on travel, art and architecture, interior design, and the theory of fiction, earning popular and critical acclaim. Many of her works, which are set in New England and Europe as well as New York City, have been successfully adapted for stage and film. From the 1940s until the 1970s, her reputation suffered from a persistent comparison of her work with that of Henry James and from the misperception that she was a writer only of high society—and therefore “narrow” interests. Subsequently, however, she has been uniformly hailed as one of the finest American writers.
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.