Ghostly Returns: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Atherton, and Josephine Daskam Bacon
Ghostly Returns: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Atherton, and Josephine Daskam Bacon
Abstract and Keywords
In attending to these ghost stories by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American women, we are eavesdropping on a conversation of sorts — an exchange among women in dialogue with the larger tradition of American and British supernaturalism more generally. These women were not just writing for each other; by virtue of rescripting the Gothic to express their own anxieties and desires, they also participated in a conversation of sorts with the masculine tradition of the supernatural tale, and negotiated with cultural expectations concerning the place of women in American culture and the relation of women to writing and professional authorship. In this final chapter the author examines the ways in which American women turned the Gothic genre back on itself and used conventions of the supernatural implicitly — and in some cases explicitly — to engage with and, in some instances, to rewrite the male Gothic tradition in order to highlight its inadequacy for representing female anxieties.
In attending to these ghost stories by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American women, we are eavesdropping on a conversation of sorts—an exchange among women in dialogue with the larger tradition of American and British supernaturalism more generally. As I have periodically pointed out, these were women who knew each other's writing and in some instances corresponded with or knew each other personally. Both Rose Terry Cooke and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, for example, wrote appreciatively of Harriet Prescott Spofford's work and she reciprocated their praise. Both likely knew her Sir Rohan's Ghost and her short supernatural fiction. Ward sought advice on writing from Harriet Beecher Stowe, who shared her interest in Spiritualism (Coultrap-McQuin 174), and Mary Austin also cited Stowe as an influence (Pryse xv). Spofford was one of the few women invited in July 1859 to a dinner given by the Atlantic for Stowe (Fetterley, Provisions 262). Elia Wilkinson Peattie was a member of the Little Room social club, the Chicago social organization named after Madeline Yale Wynne's supernatural story of the same name, and undoubtedly knew Wynne's fiction. Alice Brown was a member—and served for a time as president—of the Boston Authors' Club and included among her friends and correspondents Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields (as well as William Dean Howells who, as editor of the Atlantic from 1871 to 1881 and in a variety of other capacities, knew personally and was directly or indirectly involved in publishing many of the women mentioned in this study) (Toth, “More Than Local Color” 265). Brown, Edith Wharton, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman—along with Howells and Henry James—all participated during 1907–8 on the collaborative novel The Whole Family. In a few instances, relationships between these women were more competitive and combative than supportive—Gertrude Atherton's dislike of Edith Wharton is a case in point. Given this web of connections among women authors writing from the 1850s to the 1920s, however, it is one of the premises of this study that the recurrence of particular feminist themes within their work is not simply (p.173) coincidental. Rather, it reflects the development of a discrete body of literature—the American Female Gothic—by a talented pool of women authors who participated together in using supernatural fiction as a strategic means to articulate anxieties related to the positions, roles, and expectations for women in American culture. The women discussed in this study were educated and literate women who knew the work of their contemporaries, as well as their literary forebears, and made use of a shared repertoire of literary conventions.
These women, however, were not just writing for each other; by virtue of rescripting the Gothic to express their own anxieties and desires, they also participated in a conversation of sorts with the masculine tradition of the supernatural tale, and negotiated with cultural expectations concerning the place of women in American culture and the relation of women to writing and professional authorship. I dealt with this idea briefly in Chapter 2 through my juxtaposition of Peattie's “The House That Was Not” with Herman Melville's “The Piazza.” Melville's story, I argued there, in keeping with G. R. Thompson's contention that tales by nineteenth-century American men make use of supernatural themes to foreground the “apparitional nature of all existence” (“Apparition” 92), depicts the failure of an inadequate reality to live up to fantasy as the inevitable condition of mankind. Peattie's story, published thirtynine years later, I then proposed can be read as a rewriting of Melville's tale, in which, rather than foregrounding epistemological uncertainty and the inability of human beings to penetrate beyond interpretation to some bedrock of truth, what is emphasized is the particular disempowerment of women within patriarchal culture.
Extending on this initial juxtaposition of texts by male and female authors, in this final chapter I examine the ways in which American women turned the Gothic genre back on itself and used conventions of the supernatural implicitly—and in some cases explicitly—to engage with and in some instances to rewrite the male Gothic tradition in order to highlight its inadequacy for representing female anxieties, including anxieties over authorship. My privileged texts for this analysis will be Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Giant Wisteria” (1891), Gertrude Atherton's “The Bell in the Fog” (1905), and Josephine Daskam Bacon's “The Unburied” (1913). Gilman and Atherton, I will assert, appropriate and then recast elements of the American Romanticist tradition in a different light—in Gilman's case, rewriting The Scarlet Letter with a decidedly more ominous outcome; and in Atherton's case, placing Henry James at the center of a Portrait of a Lady—esque (p.174) tale in which the villain (a combination of James himself with his fictional heavy Gilbert Osmond) doesn't succeed in seducing the innocent. Bacon's provocative story will be examined not as a specific rewriting of a particular author or tale but rather as a meditation on the power of writing itself both to communicate ideas and emotions and as a powerful tool to instill or awaken passion in the reader. Bacon's “The Unburied” is an especially appropriate story with which to conclude this study because it is a Gothic tale about writing that foregrounds both the possibilities that authorship offered to women to “materialize” themselves and the threat that such writings presented to those who would prefer that women remain subordinate and ghostly. Bacon's tale shows how literature can implant subversive thoughts in readers; in fact, the suddenly sexual women in “The Unburied” scare the wits out of the disconcerted male narrator! Bacon's story ultimately is about the power of literature itself to provoke action and change.
From White to Re(a)d: Gilman's Rewriting of Hawthorne
David Hartwell's claim in The Dark Descent that “The Yellow Wall-paper” is Gilman's only horror tale (460) is clearly belied by “The Giant Wisteria,” which was published one year prior to “The Yellow Wall-paper” in New England Magazine.1 Gary Scharnhorst's somewhat hyperbolic descriptioncharacterizes the tale as “a terrifying diptych about an unwed mother, tormented by Puritan patriarchy, whose spirit haunts a decaying mansion” (166). In the first part of this story, the reader is introduced to an unnamed woman in late-eighteenth-century New England who has recently arrived from England with her parents and who has given birth to an illegitimate child. At the start of the story, this young woman is being chastised by her mother for “meddling” with the latter's newly planted vine, a gift to her from her husband during the passage from Old World to New (123).2 In order to obscure the blot on the Dwining family name brought about by the birth of this illegitimate child, the abusive father has arranged for the daughter to marry her cousin, “a coarse fellow” whom she “ever shunned” (125), and for the family to return to England where “none knoweth [their] (p.175) Stain” (124). The illegitimate child will be left behind as a mysterious orphan for the town to rear.
The father in this section is presented as dictatorial and unyielding. He enters onto the scene while the daughter (who is not described except for the detail of a small carnelian cross hanging from her neck) is petitioning the mother for her child and he silences her with a “hand upon her mouth” (124). He banishes her to her chamber and threatens to have her bound if she reappears again that evening. He then expresses to his wife that he would have preferred to have seen her drowned during the crossing than for her to have brought such shame on the family and, in response to his wife's concern that the daughter dislikes her cousin, adamantly maintains that “she weddeth him ere we sail to-morrow, or she stayeth ever in that chamber” (125).
The action in the story then jumps ahead over one hundred years. A young newlywed couple of means, George and Jenny, stumble across the uninhabited but furnished house in which the drama of the illegitimate child played out and Jenny is charmed by it. They arrange to rent it for the summer and (as with the protagonist of Gilman's “The Yellow Wall-paper”), Jenny expresses her hope that the house is haunted. Jenny and George swiftly are joined by two other generic young couples, Kate and Jack and Susy and Jim, who explore “the house from top to bottom, from the great room in the garret, with nothing in it but a rickety cradle, to the well in the cellar without a curb and with a rusty chain going down to unknown blankness below” (125–26). While the grounds of the mansion have devolved into a “gloomy wilderness of tangled shade” due to lack of care (126), what strikes the couples most about the exterior of the house is a magnificent wisteria vine that has covered the entire front of the house (which is apparently the same vine the young woman was “meddling” with at the start of the story). Jenny, who is “convinced there is a story, if we could only find it,” sees in the wisteria “trunk” “a writhing body—clinging—beseeching” (126).
It turns out that the house is indeed haunted. As the couples compare notes over breakfast, a story emerges in parts: Jenny initially awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of an old chain rattling and creaking over the stones of the well in the cellar. Jack awakened separately to see a female ghost with a bundle in her arms and a little red cross around her neck apparently taking things from drawers of a bureau in his room (128). George subsequently went down to the cellar to investigate the sounds heard by Jenny and describes seeing “a woman, hunched up under a shawl! She had (p.176) hold of the chain, and my candle shone on her hands—white, thin hands,—on a little red cross that hung from her neck” (129). The couples immediately adjourn to the well in the basement and, having raised the old bucket, discover the well-preserved corpse of an infant. At almost this same moment, workmen repairing the old front porch discover amid the “strangling grasp of the roots of the great wisteria … the bones of a woman, from whose neck still hung a tiny scarlet cross on a thin chain of gold” (130).
Noting the unanswered questions raised by the story, which include who fathered the child, who killed the child, and how the daughter actually died, Scharnhorst describes the story as an open-ended riddle and as “an ambiguous, half-told tale disrupted by silences and ellipses” (170). The story, he concludes, “resolves no mysteries of historical causation, repairs no rifts in the mosaic of the past” (171). While history is not repaired in “The Giant Wisteria,” the emergence of the ghost in this story does precipitate the recovery of a (literally) submerged history—one that bears witness to one woman's desperation and the violence of patriarchy. The ghost in the story, as the interruption of the present by the past, is by definition out of place. She is a violation of the linearity of time and history. What the story reveals, however, is that the young woman, while alive, also didn't know her place—that is, she violated the expectations placed on her by her father and her culture more generally and thus forfeited her place within the rigid patriarchal structure. The haunting she performs thereby figures an entire history of ghosted women—women given the dubious choice of a symbolic death in the grasp of the strangling roots of patriarchy, or the symbolic (and possibly literal) death attendant on transgression of cultural mandates. Her story is one, as Scharnhorst observes, of “sexual oppression” (167), a legacy of violence that undergirds the present relations between the male and female characters in the story. According to Gloria A. Biamonte, what Gilman's story vividly depicts is “the destructiveness of male control in defining women's lives—a destructiveness that … perverts the realm of motherhood into one of sin, into a tale of death and oppression rather than one of life and growth” (37).
In its use of supernatural themes to critique the oppression of women under patriarchal rule (Knight, Study 20), Gilman's “The Giant Wisteria”—perhaps even more so than “The Yellow Wall-paper”—is in fact a paradigmatic example of the American Female Gothic tradition and has clear connections with many of the tales discussed in this study. The story (p.177) plainly shows the ways in which American women appropriated conventions of the Gothic in order to express specifically female anxieties and concerns. Beyond this, however, “The Giant Wisteria” can be appreciated as a rewriting of the masculine literary tradition and, in particular, of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850). In “Such a Hopeless Task Before Her,” Denise Knight observes both that Gilman appreciated Hawthorne as a “‘great and deep’ writer whose work was ‘honored as one of the distinctive glories of American literature’” (250), and that Gilman criticized the narrow depictions of female characters in the masculine literary tradition that are defined only in relation to male characters. According to Knight, Gilman attempted to redress these deficiencies by producing a literature of her own that broke from the masculine tradition and moved women center stage (251). As regards Hawthorne's writing, Knight contends that Gilman made ready use of many of his most prominent themes, including sin, morality, guilt, redemption, and obsession; she revised the conflicts, characters, and resolutions, however, “to argue more explicitly her central thesis: that a reformed society—one that promotes the peaceful, progressive, ethical, and democratic improvement of the human race—is not only desirable but also within reach” (252). Knight continues, “Whereas Hawthorne's Hester Prynne could only look forward vaguely, to ‘some brighter period, when … a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness,’ Gilman's characters are able to effect a ‘new truth’ and to enact a positive change” (252).
Although Knight primarily focuses in her article on Gilman's short stories “Clifford's Tower” (1894) and “Old Water” (1911), Gilman's urge to re-shape classic American literature is also arguably reflected in “The Giant Wisteria,” the first half of which rewrites The Scarlet Letter from a more realistic perspective. Like Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, the unnamed young woman in the first half of the story is a Puritan émigré from England who has given birth to an illegitimate child and is subject to the stern Puritan policing of female sexuality. In place of the red letter “A,” she wears a carnelian cross—a red semiprecious stone—that Scharnhorst appreciates as “the noose or halter of orthodoxy” (169). Like Hester, the Puritan patriarchy—here embodied in her literal father—confines her and intends to deprive her of her child and, like Hester, she pleads not to be separated from her baby (124). In yet another parallel with The Scarlet Letter, the plan de-vised by the girl's father, similar to that of Hawthorne's Hester, is to return (p.178) to England to escape the shame brought on the family through the birth of the illegitimate child.3
There are no kindly magistrates in Gilman's story inclined toward mercy, however, and no eloquent Reverend Dimmesdale to plead on her behalf. The young woman is not allowed to defend herself and her reputation is not rehabilitated at the end. Rather, she is physically abused by her father, silenced, and imprisoned. She is, in Knight's estimation, “an archetypal death-in-life character” (21). Deprived of name, voice, and freedom of action, the pale young woman apparently enacts the same fate for her child that her father wished had happened to her: drowning.4 Whether she then killed herself or was killed by her father is left in question, but both options are equally abhorrent. Knight writes that “the sacrifice of the innocent, and her own subsequent death, constitute a morbid repudiation of her father's declaration that his daughter ‘hath small choice’ but to leave the baby and marry her cousin” (21). Her limited measure of empowerment, however, is manifest only in the possibility of her child's and her own destruction.
In the second half of the story, like Hawthorne in the “Custom House” introduction, haunted by his Puritan forebears and discovering in the trash of the attic the material sources for his story, Gilman presents what may be considered the uncanny afterlife of Puritan patriarchy—the ways in which her turn-of-the-century American culture remained haunted by the specters of gender oppression and the circumscribed autonomy for women. While the women in the second half clearly enjoy freedoms denied to the young woman in the first half, the ghost in the house and the monstrous wisteria vine that holds the body of the young woman in its “strangling grasp” reveal both the legacy of oppression these woman have inherited and the extent to which patriarchal culture draws sustenance from and grows out of—both literally and figuratively—the bodies of women. While the contrast between the autonomy allotted to women in the second half of the story with the victimization of the woman in the first half is encouraging and does suggest that gender expectations have changed for the better, the sobering revelation of the bodies of the baby and the mother concludes the tale on a poignant note, clearly illustrating that this distressing history of violence against women in patriarchal culture cannot and should not be forgotten. In (p.179) the end, Jenny is right: there is a story to be discovered—or rather dredged and dug up—one about the historical effacement of women's voices and their systematic disempowerment at the hands of men. Whether this will become the fate of any of the women in the story once they become mothers is left to speculation.
“The Giant Wisteria” thus can be numbered among Gilman's stories that depict “the plight of women trapped in the private, powerless domestic sphere” (Golden 135). At the same time, it is also a powerful indictment of a literary history and heritage that marginalized women and defined them narrowly in terms of prescribed roles for them and their relationships to men. Through what can be read as a reinterpretation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Gilman emphasizes the reality of Puritan control over women's sexuality and the subsuming of their identities by their roles of first daughters and then wives. Gilman's Hester figure does not survive at the end of the story and her child does not prosper. Rather, both child and mother die and the mother is seemingly condemned to replay the infanticide again and again—at least until her tragic story is unearthed. Gilman thus paradoxically uses the devices of fantasy to critique Hawthorne's Romanticism and to present a more realistic portrayal of the fate in store for a young Puritan woman who mothered an illegitimate child.
Portrait of an Author: Gertrude Atherton's “The Bell in the Fog”
In Gertrude Atherton's “The Bell in the Fog” (1905), as in Gilman's “The Giant Wisteria,” Atherton uses conventions of the Gothic to take a swipe at the male-dominated American literary tradition and explicitly at both Henry James and Hawthorne. Perhaps the best known of Atherton's supernatural tales, “The Bell in the Fog,” according to Jack G. Voller, is a “touchstone work in the supernaturalist tradition” that reflects both increasing prominence of Freudian understandings of the mind and the women's suffrage movement.5 For Voller, the work “incisively comments on the limitations of male emotional capacity and understanding, on a masculinized (p.180) cultural tradition, on patriarchy and its limiting constructions of gender, male possession, [and] issues of class and gender” (“Discussion”). For Alfred Bendixen, the work, which is clearly modeled after the writing style of Henry James and features a central character combining James himself with his villain Gilbert Osmond from Portrait of a Lady (1881), constitutes one of the most important feminist critiques in all of American literature (Haunted Women 205).
“The Bell in the Fog” is a complex homage to James that both pays tribute to him (the book in which the story is included, The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories, is dedicated “To the Master, Henry James”) even as it critiqueshis values and aesthetic principles. At the center of the story is “the great author” (205) Ralph Orth, an American expatriate who is the toast of European intellectual circles. The narration tells the reader that “his subtleties might not always be understood—indeed, as a rule, they were not—but the musical mystery of his language and the penetrating charm of his lofty and cultivated mind induced raptures in the initiated, forever denied to those who failed to appreciate him” (206).6 Although the characters in his work “were so remote and exclusive as barely to escape being mere mentalities,” Orth “[was] content to have it so. His creations might find and leave him cold, but he had known his highest satisfaction in chiseling the statuettes, extracting subtle and elevating harmonies, while combining words as no man of his tongue combined them before” (211).
Orth, as the description above suggests, is an aesthete who prefers to contemplate ideals rather than to engage in the messiness of human interaction and intimacy. An inheritance from a wealthy great-aunt allows him to realize one of his longstanding dreams: the possession of an “ancestral hall” in England in which he can contemplate “the aristocratic aloofness of walls that have sheltered, and furniture that has embraced, generations and generations of the dead” (205). Such a property, the narration informs the reader, is something that Orth finds far more alluring than any woman. Orth's emotional stuntedness is brilliantly symbolized by the name of the estate he purchases, Chillingsworth, at which he is content to spend weeks alone. Beyond connoting coldness, readers of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter will recognize the name of Orth's estate as an allusion to the villain Roger Chillingworth, the wounded husband in Hawthorne's novel who persecutes the Reverend Dimmesdale. This allusion to Hawthorne, combined with an (p.181) unflattering portrait of James that conflates him with his own villain, culminates in a general critique of the male-dominated American literary heritage.
As Orth lingers lovingly in his solitude over the rough, ivied walls of his Tudor estate, he increasingly becomes preoccupied with two paintings in the portrait gallery accompanying the house: a little boy in a Robin Hood costume and a fair little girl of not more than six (208). He begins to frequent the gallery obsessively, speculating on the probable fates of the represented children and expressing his preference that “such perfect beings should die while they are still perfect” (209). Admitting the possibility that the artist had “idealized” the little girl, who it turns out is the Lady Blanche Mortlake—that the artist had “painted his own dream of exquisite child-hood” rather than an accurate reflection of reality—Orth still cannot get her and the little boy, the Viscount Tancred, out of his mind. Tracking down living relations of the children, he is told that the little boy drowned in a river and the little girl died from an unknown wasting ailment (210). Orth responds to this information with gratification for the fact that the girl had died young, but he grieved for the boy, even as he admits “a secret thrill of satisfaction that the boy had so soon ceased to belong to any one” (210–11).
Armed with this knowledge, Orth concludes that the only way to end his obsession with the children is to write them out of his system and the result is his masterpiece. Unlike his other works, in which his characters are abstract and bloodless, his children seem to come to life and Orth becomes their father, so to speak, as he imaginatively reconstructs their histories. “Oddly enough,” the narrative reports, “the children had no mother, not even the memory of one” (212). In the end, the little girl still dies in Orth's imaginative reconstruction of their lives but he lets the little boy live because “to kill him off, too, was more than his augmented stock of human nature could endure” (212–13).
It is following the publication of his book, which is greeted with boisterous acclamation, that the strange occurrences begin to take place. After an absence from Chillingsworth, Orth returns and is walking on the land of an adjoining estate when he encounters a little girl named Blanche Root who is the exact duplicate of Lady Blanche Mortlake, “his child” depicted in the portrait (214). Reproducing the general situation of Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, the little girl is an American “not of the highest class” who, together with her mother, is visiting her father's relations who are descended from the estate's tenantry. Orth is dazed by this encounter and feels as if he (p.182) is caught up in one of his own ghost stories.7 Convinced that such extraordinary likenesses do not occur accidentally, Orth reopens his investigation of the children in the portraits and learns that, contrary to what he had been told, the Lady Blanche Mortlake did not die in childhood, but lived to be twenty-four. Furthermore, he discovers that she hated her husband, had no children, and engaged in an adulterous affair with a man named Root, a tenant of the neighboring estate. He learns that it was a minor scandal that ended tragically when the jilted lover, Root, committed suicide. A few months later, Lady Blanche followed suit.
Orth cannot shake the impression that the little girl, Blanche, the uncanny doppelganger of the Blanche in his painting, is the reincarnation of Lady Blanche Mortlake: “He recalled that the sinful dead are doomed, according to [occult] belief, to linger for vast reaches of time in that border-land which is close to earth, eventually sent back to work out their final salvation; that they work it out among the descendents of the people they have wronged; that suicide is held by the devotees of occultism to be a cardinal sin, abhorred and execrated” (220). Now obsessed with the little girl in the way that previously he had been obsessed with the paintings of her and her brother, Orth begins increasingly to monopolize her. He buys her expensive presents, plays with her for hours on end, reads to her, and reforms her accent and vocabulary. Venturing with her one day into his portrait hall, Orth is shown by Blanche that the portrait of the little girl hides another portrait of an older Blanche Mortlake. Viewing the previously concealed portrait, he appreciates that “there was the Lady Blanche Mortlake in the splendor of her young womanhood, beyond a doubt. Gone were all traces of her spiritual childhood, except, perhaps, in the shadows of the mouth; but more than fulfilled were the promises of her mind. Assuredly, the woman had been as brilliant and gifted as she had been restless and passionate. She wore her very pearls with arrogance, her very hands were tense with eager life, her whole being breathed mutiny” (223). From this, he concludes that the true tragedy of Blanche Mortlake was the consignment of such a vibrant spirit to a stupid family and more stupid husband, and he expresses to his little Blanche that this will not be her fate: “You live in a woman's age. Your opportunities will be infinite. I shall see to it that they are. What you wish to be you shall be. There will be no pent-up energies (p.183) here to burst out into disaster for yourself and others. You shall be trained to self-control. … Every faculty shall be educated, every school of life you desire knowledge through shall be opened to you. You shall become the finest flower of civilization, a woman who knows how to use her independence” (223). Orth resolves, in short, to adopt Blanche.
Mrs. Root, however, objects to the plan. Although she appreciates all that Orth can provide for her daughter, she reveals that her sons and daughters back in America worship Blanche and that it is Blanche who keeps them in line. She explains, “I've grown terribly superstitious about [Blanche]. Until she came I used to get frightened, terribly, sometimes, and I believe she came for that” (227). Mrs. Root concludes that Blanche is an angel who has come to assist the family, which prompts Orth to speculate (but not voice) that little Blanche is indeed “Blanche Mortlake working out the last of her salvation” (228).
Unsuccessful with Mrs. Root, Orth turns his attention to trying to persuade Blanche herself to remain with him. He claims that he is the only person who really needs her and that without her present, he “shall be the loneliest man on earth!” (229). As concerns her brothers and sisters, he opines that “if they are of the right stuff, the memory of you will be quite as potent for good as your actual presence” (229), to which Blanche hauntingly replies, “Not unless I died” (229). Ultimately, Orth is unsuccessful in his campaign to convince the delicate and ailing Blanche to remain with him and the story concludes succinctly: “He entered the nursery abruptly the next day and found her packing her dolls. When she saw him, she sat down and began to weep hopelessly. He knew then that his fate was sealed. And when, a year later, he received her last little scrawl, he was almost glad that she went when she did” (229–30).
Although not explicitly a ghost story, Atherton's “The Bell in the Fog” is layered throughout with Gothic overtones, including the isolated and solitary Tudor estate, the eerie portraits (including the one with the hidden spring and concealed second painting), histories of adultery and suicide, and the prospect of reincarnation. Interestingly, the story parallels Harriet Prescott Spofford's Sir Rohan's Ghost in several key respects: in both stories, an alienated male artist attempts to overcome his sense of being haunted through an incestuous preoccupation with a young girl. In this respect, “The Bell in the Fog” clearly participates in the tradition of what I have been calling the American Female Gothic. In essence, Orth, who has never taken any interest in women or children before, desires to buy himself a daughter to assuage his own sense of incompleteness—a daughter that he (p.184) will then, like Gilbert Osmond with both Isabel Archer and his daughter Pansy, fashion into his own image of how a contemporary woman should be. In order to fulfill his desire, Orth is willing to disregard both the mother's wishes and his own superstitious belief that Blanche is the reincarnation of Lady Blanche Mortlake sent to work out her redemption among the descendants of the people she wronged.
This complex story, however, becomes even more fascinating when it is read—as it is clearly intended to be—as a critique of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the male-dominated American literary tradition. Orth, the great bachelor author—the story's Henry James figure—creates idealized representations that lack vitality and eschews human companionship prior to his encounter with young Blanche. Like James's villain Osmond, he dwells in the rarified air of intellect and prefers “the ghosts of an ancient line” (205) to living, breathing human beings. His financial windfall allows him to purchase a history for himself in the form of a Tudor estate, complete with a portrait hall full of paintings of people with whom he has no blood relation but over which he lingers “like a bridegroom on a succession of honeymoons” (207). Furthermore, he takes liberties with history and gets it wrong. In his narrative appropriation of the lives of Viscount Tancred and Lady Blanche, he alters what he presumes to be the facts and lets Tancred live.8 It is subsequently revealed to him that Lady Blanche did not die in her youth as his narrative depicts. When Orth actually encounters a real little girl, he attempts to repeat the appropriation and revision of history he performed on the figures in the portraits. His intention is to remove Blanche from her family and fashion her into his vision of what a woman should be. In this, he is unsuccessful—Osmond, in this rescripting, does not succeed in seducing Isabel Archer and making her refined and miserable.
Although Orth is not a wholly unsympathetic or villainous figure, as a stand-in for Henry James ensconced within his allusive Chillingsworth hall acting like Gilbert Osmond, he is emblematic of an entire literary history that has both marginalized women and constructed them to suit the fancies of the male imagination rather than attempting to represent them as real, active, independent agents. What connects Orth to Hawthorne's Roger (p.185) Chillingworth and James's Osmond most directly is his selfish disregard for others and an utter lack of sympathy—especially where women are concerned. What ultimately haunts Atherton's Gothic tale is a literary history in which womanhood has been appropriated, defined, scripted, and deployed by male authors in ways that have constructed and supported unrealistic and disempowering expectations for women in American culture.
Lust Letters and Suddenly Sexual Women: Josephine Daskam Bacon's “The Unburied”
Given the extent to which the literary profession prior to the 1850s in America had been dominated almost entirely by men, one of the obstacles that women writing in the nineteenth and, to a somewhat lesser extent, early-twentieth centuries encountered was simply the fact of their participating in a male-controlled realm.9 This concern is famously characterized by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic—primarily in relation to British women (with the notable exception of Dickinson)—as “anxiety of authorship” attendant on being a “woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are … both overtly and covertly patriarchal” (45–46). Mary Kelley addresses this anxiety of authorship in her Private Women, Public Stage in relation to American women writers of the nineteenth century whom she terms “literary domestics,” including Harriet Beecher Stowe, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Sara Parton (Fanny Fern). Although these women achieved varying degrees of fame in nineteenth-century American culture, according to Kelley, “As private women they were uncomfortable in the world beyond the home. At best they felt ambivalent, at worst that they simply did not belong there” (29).
Professional publication for many women in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth therefore was a practice laden with competing affective responses: on the one hand, it offered the enticing prospects of fame and financial remuneration, as well as a means to articulate one's opinions and beliefs and to extend one's sphere of influence beyond the closed confines of the nuclear family and one's immediate community; on the other hand, for women raised as private, domestic beings conditioned to live as private individuals, professional authorship could engender in women (p.186) a “crisis of identity” (Kelley 111) as they felt themselves to be in violation of cultural expectations regarding women's roles in American culture. Given this cognitive dissonance felt by women moving into the professional sphere in a culture that continued to insist that a woman's place was in the home, fulfilling her primary duties as wife and mother, it is not surprising to see writing frequently thematized in uncanny fiction by American women as simultaneously a source of anxiety and of potential liberation. I therefore will close out this study of supernatural fiction by American women by attending to a virtually unknown uncanny text that places writing—and its perils and possibilities for women—front and center: Josephine Daskam Bacon's “The Unburied” (1913).
“The Unburied” was included in Bacon's 1913 collection of uncanny tales, The Strange Cases of Dr. Stanchon (which also includes “The Children,” discussed in Chapter 4), and focuses on love letters from beyond the grave that turn into “lust letters.” In the story, concealed letters in an old home cause women inhabiting the house to become sexually aggressive, and the combined forces of modern science and ancient religion are called on to shut down this potential threat to patriarchal authority. The radical implication of the story is that all women are potentially subject to sexual desire and that male control of female sexuality, despite constant policing, is always tenuous and incomplete. Beyond this, the story demonstrates the power of writing to awaken suppressed desires.
Appropriately enough, “The Unburied” begins in a men's club with a group, including the famous alienist Dr. Stanchon, discussing the incomprehensibility of women, “the unalterable and uncharted mystery of their mental currents: the jagged and cruelly unsuspected reefs that rear suddenly under rippling shoal-water, the maelstrom that boils just beneath the soft curve of the fairest cape” (293). This topic leads Dr. Stanchon to recollect an uncanny incident in his own life that had the inscrutability of women at its center—an incident that indeed undermined his understanding of the universe.10 He prefaces his account with the following declaration: “There comes a time … when you first discover what a gnat in a whirlpool you are. I mean that after you've done everything, played perfectly fair and followed all the rules, arranged your combinations and observed the reasonable (p.187) results for so long that you begin to think you've got hold of the System—something happens, and it's all upset again—flat anarchy” (294). To illustrate this point, he recalls that he purchased a home in a Midwestern city—the exact location, he notes, is inconsequential—with the intention of becoming a landlord. He promptly found tenants, a well-to-do jeweler and his family, and then just as promptly lost them after the jeweler's wife absconded with her husband's head clerk and all the family's money (296). Dr. Stanchon's agent noted to him that just prior to the woman's running off, she seemed changed to him, “queer” (296).
This scenario in which a woman inhabiting the home suddenly becomes sexually voracious then repeats. Following the removal of the jeweler, the house was rented to a parson and his wife. The parson was seldom at home and gossip soon began to develop around the wife. Alerted to this situation by his spouse, Dr. Stanchon consulted with the wife of the parson, who confessed to him that she felt herself not responsible for her actions and that she was putting up a fight that was killing her (299). In response, Dr. Stanchon had her committed to a sanitarium. The next tenant was a “mental healer” named Mrs. Mears—a woman appreciated by Dr. Stanchon as both clever and sensible. She remained for a month before breaking her lease. Dr. Stanchon recollects that she characterized the house as haunted and filthy: “It's a crime to rent that house,” she stated. “It's slimy. It crawls” (303). Attempting to elaborate, Mrs. Mears claimed that the house was “evil”: “Evil thought, evil lives … you breathe it in … it tangles you … another night there … I should have no more power, absolutely—I could help nobody” (303–4).
This turn of events led Dr. Stanchon to inhabit the house himself, along with two African American servants, Althea and her daughter, Myrnie. After a week in the home, Myrnie began to shed her subordinate status by speaking to Dr. Stanchon without first being addressed; she was soon discovered flirting with a married man, George, Dr. Stanchon's accomplished light-skinned African American office assistant. Myrnie was chastised by Dr. Stanchon and he recalls that the look in her eyes reminded him of the similarly “queer look in the eyes of the parson's wife” (309). Dr. Stanchon explains that at this point he began to appreciate a change in Myrnie, a new self-confidence and lack of inhibition that he, firmly embedded in turn-of-the-century racist ideologies, associated with the jungle: “Straight across the commonplace air of my office a wind out of the jungle had blown, a whiff of something old and unmanageable, and beyond rules, or beneath 'em, perhaps; something there wasn't any prescription for; something not to be (p.188) weighed and measured by any of the new methods, because it antedated method” (310).11
It was only when Dr. Stanchon stumbled across Myrnie's mother, Althea, in the midst of an apparent hypnotic trance that he began to appreciate that something very unusual was going on relating to the house itself. Her rocking and singing elicited the realization from him that “something was happening there. Something so strong and so actual that it defied all appearances, all ordinary influences that might be supposed to act on the imagination of, say, a sensitive, hysterical, under-occupied woman” (312). Thinking back over the history of the house, he noted that he was un-touched, as had been the jeweler, the parson, and the man before them. In each case, however, the women in the house had begun to act defiantly and in a sexually provocative manner.
Although Althea was suitably chastened by Dr. Stanchon's disapproval, he reports that her daughter, Myrnie, could not be controlled by him. “Heavens,” Dr. Stanchon recollects, “the change in that girl's eyes! It wasn't that they were bold, it wasn't that they were beautiful, nor even that they were conscious of it. No, it was more than that—more and worse and deeper and older—Oh, as old as Hell! That look unsettled … disorganized … how shall I put it? The flimsiness of civilisation, the essential bedrock of animalism—the big, ceaseless undertow of things …” (314). According to Dr. Stanchon, Myrnie altered before his eyes: “She bloomed in that infernal house like some tropical bog-flower; she expanded, she shot up” (314); under his observation, he “saw that girl disintegrate, decay, turn fungoid under [his] eyes” (315). Ultimately, he recalls shaking her, calling her a “black slut” (316), and expelling her from the house.
Thoroughly unsettled by this turn of events, Dr. Stanchon removed himself from the house and consulted with a Catholic priest he refers to as Father Kelly. Together, the two men undertook to explore a home that had (p.189) corrupted five “good, ordinary, honest women” (318). Mystically tracing the source of the infection to an upstairs bedroom, Father Kelly underwent a sort of spiritual battle before leading Dr. Stanchon to letters secreted behind a brick in the fireplace. Removing a brick, what they discovered was an iron box containing yellowed letters from a woman named Olive, which Dr. Stanchon appreciated as “the wickedest letters ever written,” adding, “Even for a woman, they were incredible” (324). Dr. Stanchon continues, “They were not written for me, they offered me nothing, the writer was beyond doubt dead and gone; but for a moment those yellow papers held me, soul and body, in such a grip as I have never known before or since. I can't tell you … I didn't know such things could be written” (325). In an effort to communicate his disgust with the letters, Dr. Stanchon offers the following analogy: “Did you ever turn over a good old sunny rock, flat, a little mossy, but clean and wholesome? And underneath it crawls—it crawls! Black, slimy slug things … the muck of the Pit!” (325). After reading the letters himself, Father Kelly consigned them to flames and convinced Dr. Stanchon to deed the house to him, which he did. Father Kelly then used the cleansed house as a parochial school for girls. Dr. Stanchon concludes his tale by reemphasizing that there is more to the world than that which is accessible to scientific rationality. He notes to the men who have been absorbed by his story that “there's a Pit below—you have to count on it. Perhaps we're shovelling [sic] it in, all the time, shovelling it in. … And the more you whistle, the better you'll work, of course. Very well, then, whistle! But don't mistake—it's there … it's there” (327).
Particularly interesting in “The Unburied” is the story's complicated imbrication of racial and gender politics. Dr. Stanchon is clearly a racist who maintains that African Americans are “not far from apes” (316). When Myrnie, under the influence of the poisonous letters, begins to shed her subordinate status, Dr. Stanchon associates her insubordination with “a wind out of the jungle” and similarly correlates her mother Althea's “pagan ritual” with “animalism” and savagery. At the same time, he also associates the wild look in Myrnie's eyes with that in the eyes of the Parson's wife, figuratively “blackening” the latter. Although Dr. Stanchon explicitly regards persons of African descent as only one step removed from savagery, his account reveals that he fears what one may refer to as the primordial power of female sexuality in general, the “big, ceaseless undertow of things” lurking beneath the “flimsiness of civilisation.” And what is most intriguing about “The Unburied” is that it is precisely writing that leads to “uncivilized” behavior.
(p.190) At the heart of “The Unburied” is the ambivalence of the turn-of-the-century female author. On one level, the story associates writing with desire and clearly portrays the woman writer as a monstrous, sexual being. The woman writer, Olive, expressed her sexual desire in the “wickedest letters ever written,” which shocked and dismayed both Dr. Stanchon and Father Kelly (or so Dr. Stanchon would have us believe!). And the mere presence of her letters within the house infected other women. What characterizes all the women in the story who occupy the house is their defiance of patriarchal expectations. They pointedly refuse to abide by the gender expectations governing female decorum, notably by engaging in sexually provocative behavior, but also, as Dr. Stanchon appreciates, more unsettlingly through a general refusal to be “manageable” (310)—a failure that perplexes and disgusts Dr. Stanchon.
On another level, however, what the story demonstrates is the repressive policing of female sexuality and, more generally, the limitations on female autonomy in patriarchal culture. Dr. Stanchon clearly is repulsed by any overt expression of female sexual desire. His initial consultation with the parson's wife led him to surmise that she was “simply one of those women who have mistaken their natural vocation”—presumably prostitution—and then to institutionalize her. His response to Myrnie's blossoming sexuality resulted in “the only time [he] was ever brutal to a woman” (316) as he shook her and expelled the “black slut” from his household. The expressions of desire in Olive's letters conjured up images in his mind of “black slimy slug things.” Beyond this overt display of sexuality, however, what Dr. Stanchon, his auditors in the men's club, and, by extension, men within patriarchal culture more generally, fear is female insubordination—equated by Dr. Stanchon with incivility. The expression of sexual desire by women within the story is represented as symptomatic of a larger refusal to abide by female gender expectations. Dr. Stanchon is most disconcerted by the transformation of “good, ordinary, honest women” into willful beings that disregard both their marital bonds and their subordinate status within American culture. In the end, the patriarchal institutions of science—represented by Dr. Stanchon—and organized religion—represented by Father Kelly—must combine forces in order to delimit the threat of female rebellion and return women to their proper subordinate place. This joint effort is successful, but Dr. Stanchon is left unsettled by the revelation that lurking beneath demure, respectful female exteriors may be unbridled passions and subversive thoughts.
(p.191) What finally haunts in “The Unburied” is the power of writing itself and its potential utility for freeing women from oppressive constraints on their sexuality and selfhood. Writing, which is correlated within the story with the expression of desire and erotic longing, is shown not only to be a mechanism for self-expression, but also a device for extending one's sphere of influence and for influencing others. That this writing has such a pronounced effect on other women and such an unsettling effect on men suggests that it can be an effective tool to subvert oppressive patriarchal demands and expectations. While Dr. Stanchon's alleged disgust at the thought of female sexual desire and insubordination ostensibly encourages a similarly conservative reaction on the part of the reader, what lurks beneath Dr. Stanchon's misogyny and racism is an awareness of the threat that women pose to patriarchy should they decide to disregard cultural mandates and act on their own initiative. What the story thus illustrates is the panic that the thought of such a prospect elicits in men and the lengths they will go to ensure their continued dominance over women and, in the case of white men, ethnic minorities.
Gothic tales in general are always about digging things up—bodies, family secrets, repressed memories—and shining the light of day on them. The three stories addressed in this chapter are exemplary in this respect, in both literal and figurative forms. In Gilman's “The Giant Wisteria,” the infant's skeleton that literally resurfaces from the dead water of an old well in the basement and the woman's skeleton found entwined in the roots of a massive vine offer mute testimony to the crimes that took place within the house and allegorize the varying forms of abuse and oppression to which women and children are subject in patriarchal culture. In Atherton's strange and haunting “The Bell in the Fog” (which has a belle but not a bell), the hidden story that comes to light concerns the stifling of Lady Mortlake (whose name itself is a suggestive portmanteau word of death and water) and the attempts of the “great author,” Orth, to transplant Blanche Root from her native soil to his garden, where instead of growing wild, he can (with more than a touch of Hawthorne's Doctor Rappaccini) prune and sculpt her according to his tastes. And in Bacon's “The Unburied,” what are unearthed are hidden letters composed using what Ward might consider a “different alphabet”—a woman's letters considered obscene by male authority figures (a doctor and a priest) due to their explicitly sexual nature and threatening because of the willfulness and sensuality their mere presence in the house provokes from other women. (p.192)
But what these stories also dig up and expose to the light are the inadequacies of the masculine literary tradition to represent women's needs and desires. When the bodies of mother and child are uncovered in Gilman's “The Giant Wisteria,” what is also revealed is that Hawthorne's Hester Prynne and Pearl are not living in some European country but rather are buried in shallow graves—and Gilman's literary autopsy concludes that patriarchy killed them. When, in Atherton's “The Bell in the Fog,” Orth, ensconced in his Chillingworth estate, decides that he is going to adopt a child that already has a mother and a family so that she can be raised according to his predilections—“written” to conform to his beliefs about women—Atherton shows us the predatory nature of a masculine literary tradition that appropriates and scripts femininity to suit masculine conceptions. Blanche Root is simultaneously Isabel Archer, Pansy, and Hawthorne's Pearl—and that she chooses her mother and her family over being shut up in Chillingsworth with Atherton's James/Osmond synthesis constitutes a rejection of a literary tradition that has represented women as pawns and playthings for men. And, most damningly, when Olive's lustful letters are unearthed in Bacon's “The Unburied,” what also comes to the surface are the facts of female sexuality, the erotics of writing, and the power of literature to instill subversive thoughts.
In these stories, what haunts is writing itself—both in the sense of an American literary tradition that had grudgingly made a place for women as authors of “potboilers” but excluded them from consideration as great authors, and in the sense of the uncanny potency that writing presents to influence others, instill new ideas, and provoke responses. As such, these stories are emblematic of the unacknowledged tradition of the American Female Gothic in which American women—to varying extents in concert with one another—appropriated and redeployed conventions of the Male Gothic in order to express female-specific anxieties and to contest various forms of gender oppression. What consideration of these tales makes clear is not only that, contra the prevailing wisdom, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women did write supernatural tales in large numbers, but also that they put the Gothic to work with very specific purposes in mind—among them to foreground violence against women and oppressive gender expectations; exploitation of the working class; alternative configurations of sexual desire; and the gaps, omissions, and stereotypes of the male-dominated literary tradition. This is what I refer to as “scare tactics”—using the supernatural for implicit or explicit political purposes—and directed by (p.193) these talented American women, the ghosts that flit in and out of the American Female Gothic effectively materialize the “terror of the usual,” the bone-chilling awareness that what nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women had to fear most was not the irruption of the supernatural, but rather the everyday forms of violence to which women are prone under patriarchy. These haunting tales point to a legacy of violence and it is now time that they too see the light of day.
(1) According to Knight, Gilman wrote several early stories in addition to “The Yellow Wall-paper” and “The Giant Wisteria” that make use of Gothic conventions. Among these she includes “The Rocking-Chair” (1893) and “The Unwatched Door” (1894), the latter of which Knight observes is written in imitation of Poe's style (Study 18).
(2) Page numbers refer to Lundie's collection, Restless Spirits.
(3) Scharnhorst speculates that among the possibilities the story presents, one is that the child might be the product of incest (171).
(4) Knight observes that the family's surname, Dwining, is derived from the Middle English word dwinen, a term signifying to languish, pine away, wither, or fade (21).
(5) Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton was a feminist and social activist born in California. Her sixty books and numerous articles frequently feature strong heroines who pursue independent lives. She is best known for a series of historical novels and short stories set in California, including The Splendid, Idle Forties (1902); a fictionalized biography of Alexander Hamilton entitled The Conqueror (1902); and a sensational, semiautobiographical novel entitled Black Oxen (1923), about a middle-aged woman who miraculously becomes young again after glandular therapy. She also produced a number of Gothic tales, primarily in The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories (1905) and The Fog Horn (1934).
(6) Page numbers refer to Bendixen's Haunted Women.
(7) In addition to The Turn of the Screw, James wrote quite a few excellent supernatural tales. See James's Stories of the Supernatural. On James's interest in ghosts and Spiritualism, see Banta.
(8) The name Tancred, in this context, accentuates the suggestion of violence against women. In the romantic German epic Gerusalemme Liberata, the hero, Tancred, unwittingly kills his beloved, Clorinda, during a duel in which she is disguised as an enemy knight. After her burial, while making his way through a strange magic forest, he slashes a tree with his sword and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned within the tree, cries out that Tancred has wounded her again.
(9) As Coultrap-McQuin details in Doing Literary Business, even as women achieved substantial successes as authors beginning in the 1850s, editorships and the publication business remained male-dominated.
(10) It is worth mentioning here that as Charles Crow has noted in his essay on Wharton's “The Eyes,” the narrative frame that Bacon employs, in which uncanny tales are told in the entitled atmosphere of a men's social club, is a variation on a standard opening of the ghost story in the male tradition of American storytelling that goes back to Washington Irving. See Crow's “The Girl in the Library.”
(11) As in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature more generally, representations of race in supernatural fiction by women vary from being progressive to lamentably racist. Racism against persons of Asian descent is a prominent component of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's “The Jade Bracelet” (1918) and, to a lesser extent, Amy Parish's “Ghost of Fan-Tai” (1904). Attitudes toward Native Americans are a focal point of Lydia Maria Child's “Willie Wharton” (1920) and Mary W. Janvrin's “The Legend of Starved Rock” (1856). A ghostly mammy figure is central to Ellen Glasgow's “Whispering Leaves” (1923). And, in the extremely interesting ghost story “Black Is as Black Does” (1900) by Angelina Grimké, the narrator dreams she is in heaven observing the judgments of a lynching victim and his murderer.