Marilyn Michaud, Republicanism and the American Gothic

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on January 14, 2010 in Reviews tagged with , ,

Michaud, Marilyn. Republicanism and the American Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Review by Aspasia Stephanou, view University of Stirling

Unlike previous influential but problematic analyses to map the existence of a gothic American tradition characterized and marked by “historical, psychological, internalized, and predominantly racial concerns” (qtd. in Edwards, xvii), Marilyn Michaud’s monograph aspires to cleanse American Gothic of its haunting pathologies and recognise it as an independent literary movement. Following Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall’s argument that Gothic fiction is historical at its root and its elements cultural and not psychological, Michaud takes into consideration historical and political tensions and approaches the gothic through a republican lens in order to show the ways Americans understand their past, present and future. Examining republicanism and the seventeenth and eighteenth-century anti-authoritarian ideas that influenced the revolutionary generation, the book emphasizes the historical context of the Enlightenment as one of the principles to shape American culture and the gothic. It is the persistence of secular republican ideals, Michaud argues, that have formed American consciousness. The early American republic was characterised by fears of corruption, deception, threat of tyranny, of the future, and national degeneration which provided the seeds for an American Gothic tradition. Michaud writes that, “Republicanism, therefore, is also a panic-ridden ideology animated by fears of tyranny, decay, conspiracy and corruption and it is with these ideological fears that the Gothic is deeply entangled” (19).
Juxtaposing the last decades of the eighteenth century with the early post-war decades of the twentieth century, the book reveals the persistence of republican ideals and fears in Cold War America. Michaud explains that “the moral and political imperatives that characterized republicanism in the late eighteenth century do not disappear with the rise of modern industrialization, but continue to equip twentieth-century liberal culture with a mode of self-criticism” (9). The post-war gothic period is especially significant as the period in which historians used the language of republicanism as a tool to understand American history (23). The threat of totalitarianism and mass culture demanded the lexicon of republicanism in order for Americans to confront their new fears.
Chapter one “Republican Historiography”, marks out the development of republican ideology  through the ideas of historians who believed that classical and British libertarian thought had influenced the colonies, revolution and helped create the American republic.
Chapter two “Vampires and the Cyclical Theory of History” is especially interesting for its discussion of vampirism and infection as metaphors for degeneration and corruption in cold war America. Beginning with an examination of eighteenth-century cyclical theory of history and fears relating to progress the chapter reveals America’s concern about national degeneration which persists in cold-war culture as an “internal battle between tradition and progress, nature and culture” (24). The chapter ends with a literary paradigm of vampirism by Richard Matheson. I Am Legend (1954) presents vampirism as a threat to human consciousness and the body of America. In the novel, as well as the political arena nature embodied  the eighteenth-century’s republican virtue while culture was analogous to progress and technology. The vampiric future imagined by Matheson does not however reject completely culture. In the end both culture and nature are responsible for man’s degeneration and corruption.
Chapter three “The Double and Republican Masculinity” examines the figure of the double and masculine identity and virtue. The chapter discusses the double as a figure of failed masculinity in David Ely’s novel Seconds (1963). Luxury, mediocrity and self-interest are threatening towards masculine identity. In the novel Wilson’s passivity and effeminacy are seen as unpatriotic and dangerous to the subject’s sense of national consciousness and manliness (103). The eighteenth-century ideals of virtue are still present in post-war America as undead historical values that are formative of male identity.
Chapter four “Conspiracy and Hypocrisy in Rosemary’s Baby” discusses the eighteenth-century’s concepts of conspiracy and hypocrisy and their re-emergence in the post-war period creating fears of subversion and cultural decay. In Rosemary’s Baby Rosemary is the figure of the subject in crisis. Self-deception and hypocrisy become the gothic themes of a modern evil society. As Michaud points out, “her propensity for deceit and her inability to distinguish words from actions has unleashed a new form of domination, a corrupt embodiment of moral blindness and self-interest: a newborn symbol of oppression and tyranny” (138).
Chapter five “Virtue and Corruption in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood” explores the pastoral tradition and republicanism arguing that agrarianism reflected the ideals of virtue in a world where industrialization and commerce meant corruption. In Capote’s novel virtue and corruption, pastoral life and the evil forces of progress are represented by the Clutters and their killers. The Clutter family embodies the eighteenth-century’s agrarianism being threatened by the violence of corrupted individuals, the spoiled fruits of a modern culture.
Michaud’s analysis of American Gothic successfully captures America’s fears through the republican language of corruption, degeneration and tyranny. American Gothic novels reflect the fears of republicanism in their construction of nightmarish worlds. The threat for republican values metamorphosed into vampires, doubles, conspirators and monstrous individuals are American Gothic’s villains emerging again and again to affirm “new” fears from the past with a vengeance.
Republicanism and the American Gothic offers an alternative and fresh view on American Gothic and the study of the Gothic in general. It is highly recommended for any academic scholar that is interested in the Gothic and its interdependence with history and politics. Especially the analysis and close readings of American Gothic texts offers a new perspective on gothic themes and their relation to republican fears. Beyond gothic issues, the discussion of republicanism illuminates the dark side of America and helps understand its obsession with national consciousness, purity, and nature.

Works Cited:

Edwards, Justin D. Gothic Passages: Racial Ambiguity and the American Gothic. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

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