Thinking about a unit on African American Gothic. There’s a ton of stuff out there on the wider genre of Gothic and many people have noted that literary genres such as the slave narrative are effectively Gothic texts. I tried doing something along these lines a few years ago. We used Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to talk about themes of captivity and haunting. Certainly you could read a film like Night of the Living Dead not only as a story about mass consumption but as a dramatization of the pro-segregation campaigns collectively known as ‘Massive Resistance’. Duane Jones, who plays the hero Ben, fends of soulless hordes driven by their zombie white-supremacist ideology. He would go on to act in Ganja & Hess, which takes up the vampire legend for its own purposes.
Here’s a photograph (left) made by Gordon Parks– better known perhaps as the director of the seminal blaxploitation film Shaft-– titled American Gothic, Washington, D.C. The visual rhyme with Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic (right) forms the basis of Parks’s resignifying gesture, one which is then complicated by the substitution of a US flag for the frame house in the original. If Wood called his painting American Gothic ironically, by virtue of the presence of a single arched (gothic style) window, does Parks’s choice of a flag indicate that the nation itself is (ridiculously, improbably) gothicky?
We’re moving on from Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives but I wanted to suggest the the ways that text and the ad hoc genre of domestic noir intersect with the course as a whole.
As we said in class the home is often idealized as a space of intimacy and nurturance– a sanctuary from the stress and low-grade violence of the streets. This view of domesticity maps directly onto the well-established ideology of “separate spheres,” a gendered distinction between public and private that has historically coded the home as feminine and the world of business and politics as its masculine obverse. Yet you’ll recall that in the Manifesto Marx and Engels note one of the key characteristics of capitalist modernity is the tendency for market relations to permeate even the institution of the family. There is no real outside to the demands of capital– its compulsions to compete and exploit.
Just a heads-up: beginning Tuesday we’ll have four class meetings on Frank Norris’s strange novel Vandover and the Brute. My passionate hope is that everybody’ll have that reading completed (including appendices) by Thursday 3/29 if not by Tuesday 3/27. In the meantime I want you all thinking about “the duality of man”– as Sgt. Joker would phrase it. Consider yourself: are you good or bad? What would the EVIL version of yourself look like? Would such a strange doppelgänger— your Dark Twin— simply intensify your own worst traits?
The character of Vandover embodies some of the most disturbing cultural anxieties of the fin-de-siècle (end of the century) era. Among these fears is the eugenicist paranoia that Western Civilization necessarily saps natural vitality, generating cohort after cohort of neurasthenic degenerates. Pay close attention: we have arrived at the moment when a naturalist version of the Gothic has entered the labyrinth of Race– that ultimate social fiction.
From Hammer Films ca. 1965. A gawping, strawberry blond Donald Sutherland plays a more vacuous version of Simple Jack alongside Stefanie Powers as the plucky yet oddly anodyne American beauty visiting her dead fiance’s psychotic mother– the inimitable Tallulah Bankhead speaking in a voice seasoned by two million unfiltered cigarettes.