The American Gothic

Kara Johnson, The Newberry


Ever read a strange book or watch a scary film, and feel the hairs on your arms stand on end? Ever get the “chills” encountering a creepy story, or have a hard-to-pin-down, icky feeling while standing in a cemetery or house that feels “haunted”? Have you ever had a funny feeling, but can’t quite put your finger on what it is that’s actually bothering you?

Those feelings are intrinsic to the experience of reading gothic literature. Broadly conceived, the gothic is a sub-category of the Romantic genre including poetry, short stories, or novels designed to thrill readers by providing mystery and blood-curdling accounts of villainy, murder, and the supernatural. Common characteristics of classic gothic literature include: wild and desolate landscapes; ancient buildings (ruined mansions, monasteries, etc.); castles and dungeons; secret doors and winding stairways; and apparitions and phantoms (“Literary Terms and Definitions”). J. A. Cuddon aptly describes one important quality of the gothic: “an atmosphere of brooding gloom” (Dictionary of Literary Terms, 381-82). While many gothic texts include seemingly impossible scenarios and otherworldly events, the biggest, and most effective, thrill of the gothic is that it taps into the essential terrors of human experience, hidden fears and desires, and the hauntings of the historical past. Narratives about crumbling castles and damsels in distress may not be in style anymore, but many characteristics of the gothic prevail today in popular culture—ranging from the Harry Potter series to noir films.

For the purposes of introducing and studying the gothic in the classroom, however, one important is the particular role the gothic genre plays in American literature, history, and culture. The American gothic can be approached as a cultural lens, through which we can examine the social, political, and aesthetic investments of a particular historical period.

Gothic literature has a long, complex, and multi-layered history. In many ways, the gothic genre invites many larger questions about the literary field, including—but not limited to—the ideas of how and when literary “canons” are formed, by whom, and under what conditions. As with any genre, the frameworks of the gothic can be studied, as well as disrupted. For instance, how would our perspective on the American Gothic change in the context of transatlantic (Henry James), postcolonial (Jean Rhys), or North American (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood) perspectives?

Additionally, an American gothic text is a cultural and social object; not only does it convey important material in the writing itself, as it pertains to conventions related to the language (plot, underlying symbolism and messages, staging a critique, calling attention to a social problem, etc.). As a physical object, an American gothic text performs important cultural work; through observing and analyzing its paratextual qualities (qualities of the text other than the written language, including its physical appearance, circumstances of publication and circulation, etc.), we can encounter, first-hand, the ways in which an American gothic text functions as a historical and cultural artifact.

Essential Questions:

  • What are some characteristics of the gothic?

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of working within a literary genre?

  • What are paratextual qualities of a text, and what are some purposes of encountering the material object?

  • Was there a time in your life when you felt that “creepy” feeling often associated with gothic themes?

The Foundations of Gothic Literature

The Foundations of Gothic Literature

Twickenham on the Thames

Raphael Tuck & Sons. Circa 1903.

Image of Twickenham on the Thames

Caption: Postcard of Twickenham, the location of Walpole’s estate Strawberry Hill, c. 1903 (Publisher: Raphael Tuck & Sons). The Newberry Library, Modern MS LauderL.

Metadata Details
Item Type Postcard
Title Twickenham on the Thames
Creator Raphael Tuck & Sons
Publication Date Circa 1903
Call Number Modern.MS.LauderL

The Castle of Otranto

Horace Walpole. 1796.

Image of The Castle of Otranto

Frontispiece and title page, Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1796), The Newberry Library, John M. Wing Foundation.

Image of The Castle of Otranto

Frontispiece, Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1796), The Newberry Library, John M. Wing Foundation.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The Castle of Otranto
Creator Horace Walpole
Publication Date 1796
Call Number Wing ZP 745 .C785
Location Special Collections

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The American Gothic

The American Gothic

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