THIS EMPIRE GRIM: GOTHIC SUBVERSIONS OF U.S. EXPANSION
Debates over continental expansion in the early 19th-century United States extended beyond the halls of Congress or the diplomat’s negotiating table. These discussions permeated the many expressions of US culture—embedded in landscape art, encountered in travel writing, and subverted in America’s ghost stories. Scholars have shown how narratives—conveyed through literature, art, and other forms—abetted projects of empire, but storytelling also challenged imperial assumptions. This was true of a group of cultural commentators who would use the relatively new gothic genre to warn their audience about the unsettling consequences of US expansion. By the 1840s, US writers like Charles Brockden Brown, Lydia H. Sigourney, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and others formulated a genre that plumbed human frailties and anxieties, while calling attention to the social concerns of their time. By sensationalizing their stories with exaggerations and extremes, they created a literary shield that permitted explorations into realms that seemed too traumatic or taboo to deal with directly. As a genre that told stories about the consequences of wrongdoing returning to haunt the wrongdoer, the gothic lends itself to question the many harms inflicted by US expansion. In this examination of how commentators used the gothic to subvert the ethics of territorial acquisition, I delve into the era’s novels, short stories, poetry, and artwork—both canonical and obscure—and discuss themes familiar—avenging ghosts, maniacal backwoodsmen, strange journeys—and the less familiar—lunatic fathers, reanimated buffalos, monstrous nature. For a preview, see my essay on William J. Snelling's "A Night in the Woods." Click [here] and comments on Charles J. Peterson's (attributed) “Vera Cruz: A Ballad of the Mexican War” on the Elsewheres blog [here].