Monthly Archives: April 2014

The American Gothic Tradition in Short Fiction


April 27, 2014
Title card from the first season of TV show

Title card from the TV show “American Horry Story” (Wikipedia).

America’s rich gothic tradition developed between the 1780s and the early 20th century and continues into modern times. From Puritanism and witchcraft, to swamp terrors and horror tropes, Abby Goode explores American Gothic short fiction in her summer class, “The American Gothic in Short Fiction”. We visited with Goode to find out more.

 

 

WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your class?

Goode: This lecture and discussion-based class will focus on challenging traditional notions of the gothic. It will reconceptualize what we mean when speak of an “American gothic.” The class rests on the assumption that the gothic is a broader and more important part of American literature than we think, and that it is a foundational dimension of American literary history. We will explore reader responses to the gothic, such as fear and dread, as well as tropes in gothic literature, and major themes of gothic texts. Placing a broader tradition within a specifically American context, we will discuss how the concept of the “New World”–and its accompanying concepts of race, nation, gender, religion, and histories of colonialism–penetrate this genre that we most commonly associate with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). We will read unexpected and myriad American Gothic texts, texts explore themes such as Puritanism, witchcraft, colonial encounters, historical memory, rationality vs. irrationality, domestic dramas, psychological fragmentation, racial ambiguity, urban underworlds, social degeneracy, hybridized, diseased, and monstrous bodies, and the ecological terror of swamps and the wild American frontier.

WIH Reporter: In what ways has the gothic affected modern culture?

Goode: The gothic definitely reverberates in contemporary culture, especially in TV and film. Stephen King thrillers use tropes, themes, and settings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts and our class will touch upon this lineage between early American gothic and contemporary gothic modes. A recent example of the gothic’s effect on modern culture is the series American Horror Story: Coven (aired October 9, 2013 to January 29, 2014), which chronicles the experiences of a coven of Salem descendants living in a New Orleans boarding school. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but suffice it to say that the series deploys themes of sexual violence, torture, degeneracy, and ghosts. One of the more explicit references to nineteenth-century American gothic histories is the appearance of the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie (played by Kathy Bates), a Louisiana-born socialite and serial killer known for her torture, mutilation and murder of slaves. Coven is thus the most explicit contemporary articulation of intersections of gothic violence and vexed histories of gender and race that extend from Puritan New England to New Orleans. Critics also turn to the twentieth-century Southern gothic as a renowned and distinct tradition of the gothic that extends into modern times. Another modern form of gothic manifests itself in horror films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Stephen King’s The Shining(1980). The latter carries distinct resonances with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839); both take place in a creepy ancestral home that seems alive and affects the mental state of its inhabitant, until he deteriorates completely.

WIH Reporter: What impact did the literature works read in this class have in its time compared to now?

Goode: There are myriad answers to this question but two distinct examples come to mind. The first is that the gothic affected the portrayal of religion in literature. For example, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), one of the first U.S. gothic novels, represents religious fanaticism as deeply corrupting. More specifically, the gothic often intersected with portrayals of Catholicism in nineteenth-century American literaturewhere sexual violence and horror emerged  in Catholic convent settings. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), a gothic and sensational account of sexual exploitation, narrated by former nun seeking to expose the atrocities of the Catholic convent system, provides a case in point. The second example of how the gothic affected the culture in its time is its association with the possibility of slave revolt, and more specifically, the Haitian Revolution. Throughout the antebellum period, the late eighteenth-century slave revolt in what was then called Saint Domingue hung like a shadow over the entire hemisphere, haunting the master class and slave traders as a horrifying possibility. Fictionalized accounts of this revolution, such as Leonora Sansay’s Secret History(1808) include sensationalized moments of psychosexual horror, violence, and mutilation. Widely distributed at the time, they claimed to tell the truth and provide inside information into the horrible affair of the revolution. Although one might argue that we have traces of these cultural impacts in our own time, it seems that the gothic retains the themes of sexual violence and atrocities but has become entrenched in other, more historically relevant contexts in our time. Consider, for instance, the throng of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films and shows that seem to deploy the gothic, as well as suspenseful and sensationalized crime fiction. These contexts reflect the anxieties of contemporary culture.

WIH Reporter: What fueled  your interest in this subject?

Goode: I am writing a dissertation chapter on the gothic and its intersections with human reproduction and ecology. This chapter takes up Sansay’s early American novel, a series of fictionalized letters originally written to her ex-lover Aaron Burr (that’s right!), and compares its portrayal of creole women’s fertility with its portrayal of land crab fertility in the West Indies, as the protagonist travels from Saint Domingue to Jamaica to Cuba, and then back to the U.S. It sounds wacky, but it has fueled a larger interest in the gothic in nineteenth-century literature and how it affects cultural portrayals of reproduction– a broader scholarly interest of mine. This might be a second book project for me after the dissertation. I’m particularly excited for this class because it will allow me to explore this corpus of fascinating and wild literature to see what kinds of readings emerge. I’m always delighted to find unexpected aspects of texts as I teach them, and can’t wait to see what we discover!

Goode’s 6-week class begins at 10:00 a.m. on April 29, 2014. For more information, click here.

 

 

How Much Do You Know About…Edwardian Servant Life?


April 28, 2014

1. Servants were expected to have matching:

A. Hairstyles.
B. Uniforms.
C. Names.

2. In the hierarchy of servants, those at the bottom of the ladder were:

A. Footmen.
B. Valets.
C. House maids.
D. Chauffeurs.

3. The most important servants:

A. Dined regularly with the master.
B. Were waited on at dinner by their inferiors.
C. Ate their meals on fine china.

4. Servants’ duties included:

A. Ironing shoelaces.
B. Cutting the master’s toenails.
C. Ironing newspapers.

5. When her mistress passed by, a house maid was expected to:

A. Curtsy.
B. Drop four steps behind.
C. Face the wall.

ANSWERS:

1.  A, B, and C.

In addition to wearing mandated, matching uniforms, servants were expected to have matching hairstyles. They were sometimes renamed and given generic names. Popular names for footmen were William, Henry or James. Favorite maid’s names were Sarah and Emma . It was the custom in the oldest houses that, when entering into new Service, “lower servants” took on new names given to them by their masters.

2. C.

In class-dominated Britain, there was a strict hierarchy among servants that kept them apart from one another. At the bottom of the ladder were the young girls who could enter service when they were 13, earning a few pounds a year. At the top was the butler, who was paid 10 times more.

3. B and C.

The more important servants, known as “the Pugs”, were waited on at dinner by their inferiors and ate from fine china. The Butler was the most important of the downstairs people. He kept the servants away from the owners and the gentry and liaised between the two groups. He was responsible for the servants and answerable to the gentry.

4. A, B,  and C.

Apparently nothing was considered too menial. Records show that a personal valet’s duties included ironing shoelaces, newspapers, and cutting their masters’ toenails.

5. C.

Lower servants, especially house maids, were supposed to be neither seen nor heard. When the gentry passed by, they were expected to “give way”. This meant to face the wall (avert eyes and look away). Documents from the time read as follows: “While the Housemaids will clean the House during the day, they should make every care and attention never to be observed by you doing their duties. If by chance you do meet, you should expect them to “give way” to you by standing still and averting their gaze, whilst you walk past, leaving them unnoticed. By not acknowledging them, you will spare them the shame of explaining their presence. It is not expected that you take the trouble to remember the names of all your Staff. Indeed, in order to avoid obliging you to converse with them, Lower Servants will endeavour to make themselves invisible to you. As such they should not be acknowledged.”

More information on this subject can be found in the BBC program, “Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs,” presented by Dr Pamela Cox (senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex), and the book “Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants” by Alison Maloney.

BBC Imports: Our Never-Ending Love Affair with England’s Class System


April 27, 2014
Downton Abbey, WIkipedia

Downton Abbey, Wikipedia

Ann Thompson’s summer class will explore our great love affair with BBC film/TV imports, and in the process, reacquaint us with their connection to well-known British authors such as John Galsworthy, Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. Thompson will examine the difference in direction, design, filming techniques and audience sensibilities represented by BBC programs of the last fifty (almost) years. We interviewed Thompson to find out more about this upcoming class, “BBC Imports: From the Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey”.

 

WIH Reporter: What is important to know about your class?

Thompson:

It highlights how everything is connected, and how even the most mundane entertainments in our lives, such as soap opera and graphic novels (or comics as they used to be known), have fascinating antecedents.

Snob Opera addiction goes back one-hundred seventy-five years or so, to the reading public’s fascination with “The Pickwick Papers” – both born of the need of a newly literate society for steadily available entertainment with a connecting thread running through it to pull the weekly experience together.

Julian Fellowes is, in effect, doing in the twenty-teens what Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad and many others did in the mid-1800s.

WIH Reporter: How will it change the way we look at the BBC dramas?

Thompson: It will revive memories of outstanding productions in radio serials and television series and highlight the different production values and acting styles used by the BBC as opposed to home grown shows.

WIH Reporter: What important things from the  last era (comprising 175 years) keep us glued to BBC imports?

Thompson: The ‘servanted’ life, the position of women, class differences, the quite astonishing sexual shenanigans seething underneath the pall of respectability

In addition, I am going to explore how Edwardians of all classes amused themselves at the opera house, the music hall and in the boudoirs of the likes of Cora Pearl – the Girl With The Swansdown Seat who was the toast of London and Paris, occasionally served up at ‘special’ (gentlemen only) dinner parties on a giant silver platter naked but covered in a delicate pink sauce. It is summer in Houston and all I want is to amuse with a touch of class …

Thompson’s 4-week class begins at 1 p.m. on June 2, 2014. For more information, click here.

Writer’s Workshop: Finding the Voice Within


April 27, 2014

write2Carol Munn’s workshop explores finding and honing the voice of our inner experience. According to Munn, this voice is the resonant force through which we understand ourselves, each other, history, the world, art, and literature.

We spent a little time visiting with Munn to find out more about this workshop.

 

WIH Reporter: What is the first thing we need to know about your workshop?

Munn: Passion and courage are the most necessary elements for writing and are therefore the most necessary components for our class. Writing is exciting and meaningful, and attendees will select the genre (poetry, fiction, essay) that fits them best.

WIH Reporter: What things would surprise us to know about writing and finding our own voice?

Munn: The events that we write about have most likely occurred in other lives throughout time. The distinction is in how we tell that story, what we include and what we leave out, the wording and selection of details that conveys our own voice and point of view. We already possess everything we need to access our voice, which is our unique perspective on the experiences and landscapes of our lives.

WIH Reporter: What is the biggest misconception we have about writing?

Munn: Many people believe that some people are “born” writers and that what they produce emerges unblemished from their superior regions. I believe, however, that everyone can improve and “naturalize” the precision and power of written expression.

WIH Reporter: What kinds of exercises will you use in your class to help attendees find their voice?

Munn: I will present exercises for ways to begin stories, poems, and essays because the blank page is difficult to overcome. The only purpose of an exercise is to help a writer produce something new and more powerful than what they have previously written. Therefore, some people might find it more productive to write against the exercise. Although I will have a planned lesson and structure for each meeting, the exercises will depend on the individual people in the class.

Munn’s 6-week class begins at 10 a.m. on June 12, 2014. For more information, click here.