The American South began long before there was a United States of America—it began with the Southern colonies. And even in those early days the affluent planters of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and elsewhere were literary people. They were well-educated and had the money and time to read, and they enjoyed literature especially as it formed a link to the genteel world of old England.
In those formative decades, plantations—though the work of the wealthy—were remote and often cloistered away from city society in marshes and swamps. South Carolina planters, for example, would have homes in Charleston—which was the wealthiest city in the original colonies for a time—as well as their stately plantations. They aspired to emulate the dignity and culture of the great estates of English noblemen as many of their own families had ties to such roots.
Yet from even those earliest of times, it seemed that prestige and grandeur held a shady side as well, and the success of the antebellum South, in contrast to the devastation of the Civil War, only magnified that sense of pride, loss, wealth into poverty, small wars hidden within the walls of grand plantation homes and respected families. Sometimes the supernatural was even thrown into this mix, and it was not a trajectory native to the South alone: in Europe, gothic literature had evolved already along the same themes with those regal estates of the English and German aristocrats experiencing the same narratives of fate, loss, ghosts avenging those who did them wrong, and spectacularly spooky atmospheres. Appropriately, in the South this would become the genre we now know as Southern Gothic.
The South was as ripe for creepy gothic tales as the mountains of Germany or the moors of Scotland. Historian S. Max Edelson makes this clear in his excellent book on early South Carolina planters, Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina. As noted above, the plantations were isolated and their immediate environments harsh—filled with mosquitoes and subject to sweltering summers nearly unbearable. Most of all, though, they were their own little worlds due to their remote nature, and this was a prime gothic trait: majestic though often ruined estates factor into gothic literature so frequently primarily because within these settings it’s possible to develop eccentric little worlds unto themselves. There can be a love-lorn heiress, a crazy son returned from the war, a creepy butler, a wise hoodoo woman, or whatever one desires, and they form a microcosm because the “real world” is too far away to factor into daily events.
The original Southern Gothic stories no doubt evolved out of the European Gothic ones literally imported to the plantation South. We often now think of Southern Gothic concerning more “average” Southerners in mundane surroundings, but the lineage from the European Gothic is clear and at one point was direct. Edgar Allen Poe was a Maryland writer and wrote such classic gothic fiction that his name is now perhaps the first one we think of when the word “American gothic literature” is even mentioned. But there was another Southerner, a South Carolinian, Henry Clay Lewis (1825-1850), who became one of the greatest pioneers of the genre as it is known today.
Lewis is himself a figure perfect for a gothic tale. Born in Charleston, he became a medical doctor in Kentucky and worked in Louisiana but tragically died at the early age of twenty-five, though somehow he also found time to write. Under the pen name “Madison Tensas, M.D.,” Lewis wrote strange tales of wicked and bizarre people in rural Louisiana plus fiendish beasts—even a rattlesnake that brings a whole ship’s complement of crew and passengers to a horrified halt. Huge panthers and bears, outlaws hiding in the swamps, all manner of untrustworthy folk—Dr. Lewis had it all, and probably most of his stories were even based on a grain of truth before being spun into a tapestry of fiction.
I said but little in reply, but thought a great deal. I kept to my room the balance of the trip, sickness being my plea.
With the above, Lewis wrote one of many of the lines in his book Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor which could have just as easily come from some European Gothic novel such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. The themes of entering a foreign place both external and internal, populated with weird people and fantastic, dangerous creatures even hearkens to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” as well, drawing in classic traces of gothic literature far and wide.
While it’s doubtful that Lewis’ own experience as a country doctor in Louisiana was as fraught with danger and disaster as his fiction would suggest (though considering his young death, perhaps it indeed was), there were beyond any question very real origins of the exotic contrasted with the prim world that was supposed to be in the South—a constant effort to tame the land and its varmints while maintaining the illusion all was well and under control.
There is little doubt reading works of history like Edelson’s that the early planters were not just “putting on airs” but were valiantly attempting to cultivate a graceful society in an often-hostile environment. When they were successful in places like Charleston and Savannah and their own plantation enclaves, the social expectation of such grace rolled down like a waterfall, extending to more rural and rustic places. It was that situation Lewis encountered—an educated doctor in a rustic and difficult place where, just as in Europe, the supernatural, horrific, and fantastic were used to help explain the spectacle of difficulty.
Spectacle is an apt word: we may think of Southern Gothic as a genre built on the sublime, on lingering, festering, secrets, and mysterious pasts, but it’s also a genre of spectacle and not only in its early examples. Carson McCullers, Brainard Cheney, Erskine Caldwell, Walker Percy, and Cormac McCarthy all dealt in spectacle, and John Kennedy Toole, though not fully working in the Southern Gothic tradition, built his novel A Confederacy of Dunces on the concept of one spectacle after another. A spectacle can be intentional or unintentional, but when it is unintended can well become a fiasco—a disaster of epic proportions. Of course one man’s fiasco could be another’s tempest in the proverbial teapot, which also is a common leitmotif in Southern Gothic—the ability for a character to see an event or problem as much larger or more lasting than it is in reality.
Loss, in the South, however was very real and tangible. The success the South enjoyed based on its plantations and the commerce they enabled from colonial times to the Civil War was very real, and the war was a horrible devastation to that economic base. Much of what was lost was physical and was more damaged than lost outright: plantations remained, and whole towns were languishing in blight, yet they were still there. These places became perfect settings for the gothic atmosphere with emotions of yearning, regret, anger, and pride running rampant. Some writers mined the gothic genre for its outwardly powerful and evocative aesthetics while others such as Erskine Caldwell and Cormac McCarthy used it instead to offer a critical sociopolitical view on the South.
Southern Gothic has extended into film, television, and other narratives—many of the alternative country singer Neko Case’s songs have lyrics that touch on Southern Gothic themes for that matter—and it is one of America’s unique genres of the literary arts. It speaks to our experiences but with the fantastical thrown in and retells our history with something a little extra—but most of all, it’s our very own.
SEE ALL OF MIKE WALKER’S RISE OF SOUTHERN GOTHIC PHOTOS HERE