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Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly, and the American Gothic Forest

Charles Brockden Brown is often cited as America’s first Gothic novelist, but frequently, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne are credited with taking the Gothic out of European castles and placing it in the American forest. The truth is that Brown deserves that credit as well in his finest Gothic novel, Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, published in 1799.

I recently read Edgar Huntly for the first time and was surprised to find that I thought it was the best of Brown’s novels. I had read Ormond years ago and found it very dull, but being a fan of the Gothic and literary history, I went on to read Arthur Mervyn, which had some fabulously suspenseful scenes, and Wieland, which is known for its use of ventriloquism, though I found it a bit slow. But I think Brown truly wrote his masterpiece in Edgar Huntly for several reasons, most importantly, that it maintains the level of suspense throughout.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wrote all seven of his novels in the short period of 1798-1801.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wrote all seven of his novels in the short period of 1798-1801.

I won’t give a full plot outline, but just hit on a few high points. The novel begins with the title character grieving the death of his friend Waldegrave, who was murdered, but the murderer remains unknown. Brown uses the manuscript technique, in this case in the form of a letter, to have Huntly describe the events of the novel to Waldegrave’s sister, Mary, who is also Huntly’s love interest. A collection of papers belonging to Waldegrave is also in Huntly’s possession, which eventually go missing, hence more manuscript usages.

Huntly soon observes a servant who lives nearby, Clithero, sleepwalking and digging in the ground to hide something, making him suspect Clithero is Waldegrave’s murderer and sleepwalking due to a guilty conscience. Huntly learns from Clithero’s fellow servant and bedfellow that he has overheard Clithero uttering guilt-ridden speeches in his sleep. Finally, Huntly confronts Clithero and from him hears his full story of despair and guilt and crime and how he fled Ireland to come to America. The story is part of the stories within stories Gothic technique and provides plenty of Gothic themes, including social mobility that suggests transgression, gambling, and illegitimate children, not all Clithero’s crimes but those of his mistress’ brother, whom he eventually kills, thus staining his hands with blood. I’ll leave all the details for interested readers to discover, but it turns out Clithero is not the murderer of Waldegrave. What Clithero is, however, is a Gothic Wanderer figure, one who believes he has also killed his mistress, and who feels incredible guilt and is in exile for it. Huntly refers to Clithero as a “wanderer” and Brown does an amazing thing in showing Huntly willing to forgive Clithero when he still thinks him Waldegrave’s murderer, saying he will befriend and help heal him once he hears his confession. This desire to redeem the Gothic wanderer is rare in early Gothic works and more of a Victorian theme. Whether or not Clithero is worthy of redemption will be seen at the novel’s end.

After telling Huntly his story, Clithero flees into the woods in despair. Huntly searches for him and finds him perched high up on a rock but Huntly cannot reach the summit and returns home. Soon after, Huntly finds himself in a strange cave and believes himself to have been abducted. The novel’s suspense really skyrockets at this point as Huntly makes his way out of the cave and has to get past savages as well as rescue a white girl who is their captive. From that point, Huntly goes through a series of adventures in the forest that result in some truly suspenseful scenes as he constantly fears death at the Indians’ hands. The novel, of course, is racist in its attitude toward Native Americans, but that doesn’t eliminate the very real fear that a white man would have felt in this situation, and it does make the forest truly Gothic in atmosphere.

I’ll leave it up to readers to discover how the plot turns out and who murdered Waldegrave. There are several twists and turns, though Huntly’s time in the forest fleeing from the Indians takes up a good half of the novel, and at times, I thought perhaps Brown had almost forgotten about the plot concerning Clithero and Waldegrave, but they are brought back in the end and all explanations made.

The book is not perfect, but it is probably the best Gothic work before Poe and Hawthorne. (I don’t think Cooper, despite the suspense of his stories, really qualifies as Gothic since he doesn’t rely on typical Gothic themes like manuscripts, the supernatural, transgression, etc.) Brown writes more realistic Gothic fiction, not using the supernatural, but all the other elements are present in his work. The novel’s faults include the sleepwalking—both Clithero and Huntly turn out to be sleepwalkers, which seems unbelievable to me; I have yet to know anyone who actually sleepwalks in my life. The other fault that makes Brown tiresome at times is the sheer wordiness of his writing. He continually repeats himself and lets Huntly think through the same matters multiple times. One phrase that I found completely laughable was when Huntly said, “by a common apparatus, that lay beside my bed, I could instantly produce a light. The light was produced.” Why couldn’t Huntly have just said, “I lit a candle”? Despite these faults, there is suspense up to the last moment, even when the wordiness gets in the way.

Anyone who loves Gothic fiction and loves Poe and Hawthorne would find Edgar Huntly the best novel to read as an introduction to Charles Brockden Brown. The American Gothic tradition owes a huge debt to him.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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The Wandering Jew: A Staple of the Gothic Wanderer Tradition

The following article is taken from the introduction of my chapter on The Wandering Jew in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption:

The Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore

The Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore

The Wandering Jew was originally a symbol of the Jewish people who were themselves wanderers and outcasts among the world’s settled nations. In 70 A.D., the Jews rebelled against Rome, only to have their rebellion defeated. The Romans punished the Jews by dispersing them from their homeland and selling thousands of them into slavery. This dispersion resulted in the Jewish people migrating all over the known world and becoming residents in every European country. Because Christians blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, wherever the Jewish people settled, they were mistreated and often forbidden to reside in certain countries. Consequently, even when they settled somewhere, prejudice against them would frequently result in their migration elsewhere after a short time; the Jewish people were continually forced to wander about Europe seeking a place where they could live unmolested. During the Middle Ages, one of the harshest penalties frequently imposed upon the Jewish people was a prohibition against their owning property, which added to their wandering status and inability to remain in one place for extended periods. Because they needed a source of income that they could not achieve by living off the land, many Jews took advantage of Christianity’s prohibition to its followers of being usurers. The Jewish people filled the needed position of moneylenders, and they frequently became wealthy as a result. Consequently, the Jewish people had two primary stereotypes attached to them: they were wanderers, and they were greedy people who were constantly grasping for money.

Europeans who were jealous of the Jews’ wealth spread fabulous derogatory tales about them: Jews possessed hidden and heavily guarded treasures; Jews possessed the evil eye by which they could curse and destroy people; Jews had horns or tales, and they emitted foul odors of brimstone and sulphur which suggested their alliance with Satan because they were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. Jews were even accused of draining blood from Christians to use for sorcery practices (Zatlin 135n). Particularly in times of social upheaval or economic crisis, such stories were circulated to encourage anti-Semitism and to validate removal of Jews by forced emigration or even extermination.

From all this anti-Semitism arose the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew. In most versions of the legend, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to allow Christ to rest on His way to the cross. Christ punished Ahasuerus by forcing him to wander the earth without death or any form of rest until Christ’s return on the final Judgment Day. Usually, this cursed condition is interpreted to mean that Christ will eventually redeem Ahasuerus who will have atoned for his sins by his prolonged wandering (Hurwitz 222, Tennyson 201). As he wanders the globe, the Wandering Jew remarkably appears without explanation at the sites of great historical events such as the sack of Rome, the crusades, and decisive Napoleonic battles; these appearances at great events suggest that the Jew may have supernatural powers that allow him to appear wherever he chooses (Tennyson 212). The Jew’s constant wandering is enhanced by his fear that Christians will learn his true identity, so he must continually move from place to place so he is not identified and thus mistreated.

Because Christ is usually depicted as loving and forgiving, it is odd that a story would have circulated of his uttering such a terrible curse against the Wandering Jew for such a minor unkindness. Isaac-Edersheim offers the explanation that the Wandering Jew should not be understood as merely an individual sinner, but as a force in opposition to Christ, a type of superhuman figure who must be defeated (190, 198). While numerous psychological and historical explanations have been offered for the Wandering Jew legend, the Gothic novelists chose to represent him as a transgressor, and therefore, a force in opposition to Christ. The Wandering Jew is appealing to readers because everyone has a bit of wanderlust in him or her, and the Jew represented the common human fear of becoming an outcast (Isaac-Edersheim 197).

The Gothic uses wandering as a metaphor for guilt and despair, and the Wandering Jew became the perfect vehicle for depicting such emotions. The Wandering Jew feels great guilt over his transgression, a guilt that becomes nearly unbearable because of his extended life. The Wandering Jew frequently yearns to escape from his punishment by committing suicide, yet he is unable to accomplish such a deed because he cannot die until Christ’s return: if the Jew tries to drown himself, the water pulls away refusing him entrance; if he tries to jump into a volcano, he is spit out alive, and in battle, no man is able to harm him, so his prolonged life becomes only prolonged misery. Isaac-Edersheim remarks that the Jew’s prolonged life symbolizes the human repressed desire not to die (196), but ultimately, this desire is rejected when life-extension is fully considered. Marie Roberts observes that the legend becomes a lesson upon man’s moral responsibility to reconcile himself to death, for not only is death inevitable, but the reverse would be far worse (Gothic 208).

The Wandering Jew was only a minor figure in British literature before his adaptation by Gothic novelists. The first recorded reference in England of the Wandering Jew was in 1228 in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Alban’s, entitled Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover (Roberts, Gothic 74). Among the other medieval depictions of him, the most notable appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” where an old man must wander the earth until he can find someone willing to exchange youth for his old age. The Wandering Jew’s popularity in literature increased during the seventeenth century. He is given the name of Ahasuerus in an anonymous German pamphlet of 1602 entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem juden mit Namen Ahasverus (Roberts, Gothic 75); Ahasuerus would become the favored name for the Jew, although Matthew Paris also wrote a story in the seventeenth century, naming the Jew Cartaphilus (Tennyson 202). During the seventeenth century, the Wandering Jew also becomes credited with healing powers attributed to the Rosicrucians, as stated in Peck’s History of Stamford and Aubrey’s Miscellanies (Roberts, Gothic 74). Later, the legend of the Wandering Jew and the Rosicrucians would become blended together in Gothic literature. Other notable treatments of the Wandering Jew prior to the Gothic novel occur in late eighteenth century German literature. Goethe wrote a fragmented tale either simultaneously with or directly after his famous The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), but it was not published until 1836 (George Anderson 168-73). Christian Schubart also wrote a fragment published in 1783 called Der Ewige Jude (Roberts, Gothic 78). Finally, Reichard’s Der Ewige Jude (1785) ambitiously chronicled the Jew’s entire wanderings throughout history (Roberts, Gothic 75). None of these early treatments, however, popularized the Jew or were of significant influence to the Gothic tradition. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) is primarily responsible for the Wandering Jew becoming an important Gothic figure.

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The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler R. Tichelaar

The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at http://www.GothicWanderer.com

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Lord Byron Memorabilia and the Gothic Tradition

Recently, a copy of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was discovered and is expected to sell for 400,000 pounds at auction. And it wasn’t just any copy of Frankenstein; it was the copy Mary Shelley had autographed specifically for her good friend Lord Byron. You can read more about the sale at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/09/06/lord-byron-frankenstein-mary-shelley_n_1860447.html

Tyler at Knebworth House in 2000.

As has been told thousands of times, Frankenstein was first conceived during a holiday in 1816 when Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley all gathered together to tell ghost stories. From that evening Polidori’s The Vampyre was conceived—the first vampire story in English—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Consequently, Byron was present at the origins of Frankenstein.

What I wouldn’t give to have Byron’s copy of Frankenstein, but alas, I don’t have 400,000 pounds. But the auction sale reminded me of one of my favorite literary experiences I had in the summer of 2000 when I attended the first Edward Bulwer-Lytton conference at the University of London in England. There I presented a paper about the influences of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni (1842) on Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a paper that later formed the basis for a chapter in my new book The Gothic Wanderer. But for me, the highlight of the conference was when Lord Cobbold, descendant of Bulwer-Lytton, had us all for dinner and a play at Knebworth House, the fabulous Victorian Gothic home built by Bulwer-Lytton.

Knebworth House and Gardens

Bulwer-Lytton fancied himself as a Lord Byron type, having come of age while Byron’s poetry was all the rage. Bulwer-Lytton was born in 1803 while Lord Byron died in 1824. Not far from Knebworth House was the home of Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s former mistress, who had committed adultery with him, despite her marriage to Viscount Melbourne, later Prime Minister of England. By the time Bulwer-Lytton knew Lamb, she was middle-aged, but he was a young man who fancied she might take an interest in him, although eighteen years his senior.

As far as we know, his attraction to her—perhaps more from her former relationship with Lord Byron than her own beauty—never amounted to anything, but because of his interests in Lord Byron, she gave him Lord Byron’s ruler which she had in her possession as well as a copy of Glenarvon, a fabulous Gothic novel she wrote in 1816, a thinly disguised portrait of her relationship with Lord Byron, in which she depicts him as having similarities to a vampire. The main character, Callantha, commits adultery with the title character Glenarvon, a relationship that is akin to achieving damnation, but in the end, they separate and Callantha finds redemption while Glenarvon is tormented at sea, seeing the Flying Dutchman, the haunted ship manned by sailors who can never rest and which would later be developed more fully in Captain Marryat’s novel The Phantom Ship (1839). While Glenarvon is not the best written novel, it’s a fascinating one, full of Gothic elements, and interesting as a portrait of Lord Byron. Byron was himself not impressed by the book, remarking upon it, “I read Glenarvon too by Caro Lamb….God damn!”

You can well imagine how exciting it was for me to visit Knebworth House and especially when Lord Cobbold gave us a tour, showed us Lord Byron’s ruler, and then unlocked the glass cabinet, and unbelievably, passed around the copy of Glenarvonthat Lady Caroline Lamb had given to Edward Bulwer-Lytton! For just a moment, I got to hold it in my hands and feel connected to those far away great Gothic authors of the past. Now if I only had 400,000 pounds.

Gargoyles on one of Knebworth House’s many towers.

For more information on Gothic literature, Lamb, Bulwer-Lytton, Shelley, and Byron, check out my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Fiction 1794-present available at www.GothicWanderer.com. and if you’d like to visit Knebworth House, well worth the visit, and a house that has been featured in many films, you can learn more at: http://www.knebworthhouse.com/

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A Wandering Superheroine: My Super Ex-Girlfriend

In my new book The Gothic Wanderer, I discuss how in the early twentieth century, the Gothic Wanderer figure was transformed into a superhero figure, citing Superman and Batman as examples. However, the movie My Super Ex-Girlfriend, starring Uma Thurman in the title role, takes the superhero a step back to its Gothic Wanderer origins.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend Poster
Source: © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. (Use of poster image falls within fair use rights to promote film.)

Most Gothic Wanderers are guilty of being transgressors, holding dark secrets they must hide from others. The superhero figure is much the same, except rather than guilt, the superhero must hide his identity from the world. And in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, superheroine G-Girl, played by Thurman, is no different, until she falls in love.

G-Girl, disguised as ordinary girl Jenny, begins dating Luke Wilson’s character, Matt, after he hits on her, she rejects him, but then he tries to stop a purse thief. While still keeping her identity a secret, she tells him that she always has to help others, but he was the first person who ever helped her, so he is her hero. He doesn’t yet understand the full implications of this statement, but as the film goes on and G-Girl reveals her identity, she also reveals just how lonely her life has been. Soon she is jealous of Matt’s attractive coworker, Hannah. When Matt suggests Hannah and her boyfriend join him and Jenny (G-Girl’s name for the world to know), and G-Girl instead must rush off to save the world from a missile gone astray, only to return to find Matt and Hannah hugging, her full sense of loneliness is written all over her face.

The movie goes from that point into a scary picture of a neurotic G-Girl when Matt tries to suggest they break up and G-Girl becomes the crazy ex-girlfriend, accusing him of sleeping with Hannah. Soon, Matt finds himself in his own Gothic nightmare (although hilarious to the viewer) as G-Girl makes his life a living hell–even his nightmares based on fear are scary enough.

G-Girl has, like most Gothic wanderers, achieved forbidden power, or at least unnatural and supernatural power, in this case after being exposed to meteor radiation, which allows her to fly, gives her superhuman strength, and heat vision. These abilities have separated her from humankind. In the film, Matt and his friend, Vaughn (played by Rainn Wilson) discuss what the G in G-Girl stands for, but I don’t remember an answer ever being given – could the G really stand for “Gothic”?

Well, despite the Gothic elements, superheroes tend to have happy endings, and this movie is a comedy. There are some interesting twists, including an ex-boyfriend of G-Girl’s who has become her nemesis as the film’s chief villain. It’s an entertaining film, good for some laughs, but it also speaks to issues of loneliness for those who are different in society. How many viewers, I wonder, realize that G-Girl is a literary grandchild of Gothic wanderer outcasts?

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