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  • Jess Reed

“The Devil’s Been Down in Georgia: A History of the Southern Gothic”

American Novelist Toni Morrison:

The American South has never been a place of great political stability. Its shameful history of slavery and discrimination echoes in the still-present racist infrastructure, and the failure of its representatives to advocate for their constituents has resulted in high poverty rates and systemic inequality. The tragic postbellum reconstruction era effectively institutionalized white supremacy, and even today, statues of Confederate soldiers stand tall in cities built by the enslaved.

Sadly, many equate the failure of politicians to provide their people safety and opportunity with a failure of the people to deserve safety and opportunity; that the South is a lost cause, devoid of culture, an artless society, a far cry from the high-art created in Seattle coffee shops and New York penthouses among the social elite. 

This take is racist, classist, and provably false. In fact, it is the South from which one of America’s most recognizable literary traditions, the Southern Gothic, was born.

“True” Gothicism calls to mind images of rotting European castles, vampires brooding in the shadows, and incestuous, old-money families with a knack for the supernatural. Southern Gothicism evolves these tropes to its particular culture and history. Instead of abandoned ruins in Romania, authors set their stories in decaying ex-plantations in postbellum Louisiana. Folklore traveled with immigrants, and mythologies mixed together; picture the French vampires Louis and Lestat of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire escaping the rebellion of enslaved Africans who identify their monstrosity as the Devil’s work (the 1994 movie of the same name filmed at Oak Alley Plantation, which still offers tours today). Think also of the incest present in almost all of Faulkner’s work, and that “old-money” in the American South carries some pretty sinister implications. Faulkner and his peers spin European Gothic tropes to be inarguably Southern American, while carrying on the Gothic tradition in good faith.

Oak Alley Plantation, from:

Indisputably successful authors like Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy all explore the particularly prevalent perversity of religious moralism in what O’Connor referred to as the “Christ-haunted” American South. They often use dialect and distinct writing styles to better immerse their readers, and employ geopolitically-influenced horror. In other words, there is no denying Southern Gothicism as a valid literary movement, as worthy of study as its European predecessors. 

However, Southern Gothicism was originally met with the same elitism demonstrated politically today. When literary critic Ellen Glasgow first defined the genre in 1935, she did so with contempt, claiming that Southern Gothic author’s “incurably romantic” depiction of the South was only an attempt to avoid its past. Modern critics, however, assert that the constant reimagining of the American South’s past is a necessary part of reconciliation with it; that to dismiss the South as a literary lost cause is to dismiss the nuanced and diverse personal experiences of Southern writers. 

Southern Gothicism is an integral counterpart of the American literary canon; what would the study of American literature be without Morrison’s Beloved, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God? Still, Southern authors and citizens alike face elitism through the dismissal of their art and the dismissal of their personhoods. As high school, undergrad, and grad school classes gradually open to celebrate the diversity of American literature, it is vital that Southern Gothicism be included in the conversation.


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