A Life Less Gothic: Gothic Literature, Dark Reform, and the Nineteenth-Century American Periodical Press

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Gray, Sarah B.
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Middle Tennessee State University
Gothic as a genre is particularly concerned with identifying and exposing anachronisms in social law and behavior. Though most scholars, both Gothic and otherwise, view this as a reactionary position, my study exposes how, especially in the hands of American dark reform writers, Gothic became an active genre, illuminating for readers not what they do fear, but what they should fear. Though many nineteenth-century reformers wrote tracts and sentimental novels in the service of social reform, Rebecca Harding Davis, Louisa May Alcott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and George Lippard recognized that by paralleling nineteenth-century legal and social issues with Gothic literary elements—coverture with captivity, loss of female “purity” with live burial, and insane asylums and civil commitment with the veil—in short stories and serials published in popular periodicals, their calls for social reform would reach a much more vast and varied national audience.
My project examines literature primarily published in nineteenth-century American periodicals to expose the extent to which authors such as Davis, Alcott, Southworth, and Lippard employed Gothic as the mode best suited to inspiring social reform. Beginning with the stock Gothic elements of captivity, live burial, and veil motifs, I circle back to discover similar Gothic impulses in early American literature, which, once exposed to and influenced by European Gothic, created a unique American Gothic strain recognizable in the writing of such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Examining appearances of captivity, live burial, and the veil found in some early American literature reveals the nuances present in the American Gothic deployments of these tropes that later dark reform writers used literally to scare their readers into social action aimed at revising or revoking the laws and social mores that allow such systems to persist.
American Gothic, Gothic Literature, Law and Literature, Nineteenth Century, Reform, Women's Rights