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Gothic Short Media: A Survey of the American Short Story to 1900

ENGL 103.601
Tuesday 5:00-8:00pm
fulfills requirements:
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Sector III: Arts & Letters of the College's General Education Curriculum

Despite the grandiosity of the novel among fiction-telling genres, the short story has long kept certain superlatives to itself. A good short story revels in an economy of language, distilling something great in a narrative ironically small. In his influential essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Edgar Allan Poe famously contends that this matter of length makes short print media a superior form, in that it makes possible a “unity of impression.” “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting,” Poe observes, this “unity” is immediately sacrificed, “for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.”

In Poe’s case, the “impressions” he attempted were inextricable from the gothic sensibility he’s remembered for today. In fact, this was true for many of his contemporaries and predecessors as well: the best known writers of the short story in the antebellum United States tried their hand at the gothic regularly. This affinity begs a couple of questions: to what extent are the gothic and short media intrinsically compatible? If, as our syllabus suggests, the two modes have a long history of evolving in tandem, how might we make sense of their cultural overlap aesthetically, politically, and intellectually? With these questions in mind, “Gothic Short Media” investigates the uncanny intimacies between short narrative, broadly conceived, and the gothic across various scenes of literary print media, as well as sermons, medical case studies, curiosity cabinets, slave narratives, oral folklore, and experimental psychotherapies. The majority of our readings will come from the late 18th and 19th century, when this affinity was beginning to cohere in innovative ways. Texts we’ll explore include Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales; Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque; editorials from Frederick Douglass’s The North Star; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable”; Louisa May Alcott’s “Blood & Thunder” tales; and Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman.