Book Review – The Transnational Gothic, Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century

Posted by jongreenaway on May 24, 2013 in Blog, Jon Greenaway tagged with , ,

Edited by Monika Elbert and Bridget M. Marshall

Interdisciplinary has become something of an academic buzz word recently but like many good ideas it’s often easier to talk about than practise. To redress this Ashgate have brought out this collection of essays purporting to re-orientate the Gothic as a global aesthetic rather than as something that draws specifically from certain nationalist or political settings.

The aim is ambitious and from the outset the collection makes clear that easy or dogmatic answers are not going to be reached. The opening introduction which sets out the current state of Gothic criticism in exhaustively researched detail makes the valid, and well overdue point that all too often Gothic criticism falls into ‘the either/or – gender or race’ categories. Other binaries that the collection seeks to blur are ‘the oppositional tendencies,’ that of “us versus them” that , according to the collection’s editors, colonial Gothic criticism often falls into.

By and large this new collection succeeds in breaking free of, or at the very least questioning, these received constructs. The essays are grouped into four different sub-sets that focus on areas that should be familiar to Gothic scholars – Old and New World Gothic, Gothic Catholicism, Anglo-American Gothic and Gothic beyond the novel, or ‘Social Anxieties’ as the collection somewhat ambiguously terms it.

The sections are all very strong with particular stand outs being Diane Long Hoeveler’s essay on the demonization of the Catholic other and Sian Roberts’ excellent essay at the beginning of the collection on transnational criticism. The Roberts essay is exemplary of the collection as a whole as it questions the scholarship that perpetuates stark differences between British and American Gothic despite this not being borne out by the realities of Gothic literature. Well written and thoroughly researched the essay is compelling reading but serves better to problematize issues and debates rather than give specific answers. To some readers this could well be the collections biggest failing as an interdisciplinary approach necessitates ambiguity and complication rather than resolution.  More than once reaching the end of an essay simply provides more questions than answers.

Perhaps, however, the only other real criticism can be found in the collection’s subtitle of ‘literary and social exchanges in the long Nineteenth Century.’ Whilst the analysis on the cultural and social exchanges that form the basis for a transnational aesthetic seems compelling what is not given as much prominence is the role of capital. Cultural exchange is arguably dependent upon and precipitated by economic exchange. Books followed slave and trade ships across the Atlantic and this economic part of the transnational analysis seems less developed than others.

In short, the collection is an excellent resource for cultural, social and literary critics with an interest in Gothic scholarship. Rather than adhere to a particular school of criticism that is rooted in a limited framework the collection seeks to question received wisdom and complicate and problematize how we view the Gothic. The introduction speaks of the Gothic as a literature of freedom, or at the least of liberating possibilities. Criticism may not agree but with collections such as this aiming to blur boundaries and raise ambiguities the liberating possibility contained in this collection makes for complex but informative reading.

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