Gothic Guilt in American Literature, 1798-1865
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In the United States, the gothic genre is famously linked to guilt. Charles Brockden Brown is credited with having inaugurated an American Gothic in publishing Wieland; Or, the Transformation (1798), which appeared during the height of the British Gothic novel’s popularity. Despite Brown’s focus on themes similar to British novels such as William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), criticism on the gothic and US guilt tends to focus on a national literary scene that includes later US writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. These national comparisons read fiction that often does not directly address US guilt and thus does not trace Brown’s explicit interest in systems of power influencing the US. This dissertation instead pursues Brown’s interest in the transatlantic Gothic genre by showing how nineteenth-century writers use gothic imagery in addressing the guilt of nationalist action in genres other than the novel. This method highlights how genres such as the slave narrative and poetry become central for understanding the nineteenth-century gothic’s relationship to US guilt. While indebted to the scholarly conversation about symbolic guilt in American literature, this project highlights how what I term “gothic guilt” emerges from the novel to become a critical rhetorical method for those from class, race, and gender identities not significantly included in the nation’s revolutionary formation. “Gothic Guilt in American Literature, 1798-1865” traces how the gothic genre transformed written accounts of the nationalistic changes impacting small-scale, local cultural practices up to the US Civil War.