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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

September 6, 2002

Front-Page News

Haunting Tales of Slavery In a book review titled "American Gothic: Two Narratives Add a Literary Aspect to the Literal Horrors of Slavery" in the August 11 Chicago Tribune, Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Young writes about the connections between race and Gothic horror in American culture as evidenced in two recently published works about slavery. Young suggests that Hannah Crafts, in The Bondwoman's Narrative, and Henry Box Brown, in The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown: Written by Himself, employ the creepy literary techniques of Gothic fiction—everything from ghosts' haunting and supernatural creakiness to gloomy landscapes and beckoning corpses—as a means of expressing the very real horrors of slavery.

The Bondwoman's Narrative is believed to date from around 1855 and to be "possibly the first novel by a black woman and definitely the first novel by a woman who had been a slave," according to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who "rediscovered" what seems to have been an unpublished manuscript and served as its editor. Citing passages in Crafts's tale such as "The corpse seemed to leer horridly, to gibe and beckon and point its long skinny fingers towards me. . . . [It] seemed to rise and stand over me, and press with its cold leaden hand against my heart," Young traces the link between Gothic horror and race back at least as far as Edgar Allen Poe, "whose stories of white people in psychic distress are indirectly infused with the fears generated by slave uprisings like those of Poe's near-contemporary, Nat Turner," she writes. Young notes that more modern examples of the African American Gothic tradition include Toni Morrison's ghost daughters and Ralph Ellison's invisible man. Writes Young, "Like Morrison and Ellison, Crafts suggests the strengths of the Gothic as a literary form of resistance for those whose literal worlds already constitute a night of the living dead."

According to Young, a nonfiction example of this interplay between slavery and Gothic horror is provided in The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, first published in 1849, revised in 1851, and now reprinted. The 1849 edition of the story was written by white abolitionist Charles Stearns; the 1851 version, which this edition reprints, was
presented as "written by himself." To escape from slavery, Brown had himself mailed in a small box from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia. After his successful escape, he became a celebrity in America and England, forever after known as Henry "Box" Brown. He told his story repeatedly to audiences and had it dramatized in a set of paintings. Writes Young, "Read together with The Bondwoman's Narrative, the story of Henry 'Box' Brown suggests a Gothic nightmare of claustrophobic enclosure made viscerally real. 'I had risen as it were from the dead,' Brown says of his triumphal emergence from the box. This resurrection suggests Christ—but also Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, other famous figures of the time—rising from the dead. In the remarkable books that Crafts and Brown left behind, horror serves not only as a surprisingly realistic medium through which to represent slavery, but also as a powerful means of resistance to it. The reader who steps into the haunted houses built by Crafts, and the claustrophobic box occupied by Brown, encounters unforgettable reconstructions of the Horror—slavery—upon which America itself was built."
Pratt Praise The renovated Pratt Hall was featured in an article on campus architecture and its significance in higher education in the summer 2002 issue Connection magazine, the quarterly journal of the New England Board of Higher Education, The publication reaches more than 12,000 decision-makers and leaders in higher education, business, and government.

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