Review of Frontier Gothic
Anthology of Critical Writing about Literature at American’s Edge
This book is devoted to understanding the themes and changes in American literary interpretations of the frontier from the colonial period until the twentieth century.
The implicit thesis is that transformation from an encounter with supernatural or irrational forces on the physical, mental, or spiritual frontier should be considered one of if not the preeminent experience in American literature. This idea is an extension of the American Experience, which is one of perpetual movement into a frontier space. The anthology aides such an argument by showing how frequently this theme appears in genres as seemingly unrelated as western novels, short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and 1980’s science-fiction.
The book also examines overlaps of theme such as how this type of literature treats traditional expressions of class and gender systems. Therefore, the suggestion appears to be that frontier literature, particularly with gothic elements, also constitutes an almost inexhaustible subject for fiction because it is in a constant state of transformation and renewal. On a related note, to American involvement in the frontiers of the human mind, technology leading to cyberspace, and the exploration of the solar system represent a continuation of this same activity of encountering frontier territory.
New and Old Frontiers
The book succeeds for the most part and admirably so given the chronological breadth the authors and editors span in a slim volume; any overview of American Literature is bound to run into problems, even when self-limited by a particular theme. The authors show the frequency and development of their topic and even make an argument that Flannery O’Conner’s Southern Gothic represents a type of frontier literature.
One of the more interesting arguments concerns Mogen’s inclusion of “cyberpunk” fiction such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer as Mogen sees the next frontier—as both a historical and literary development—as the uncharted and ever-expanding new realities created by contemporary advances in technology and computer science. This new frontier will still have at least one problem American frontiers have always possessed: human beings and the flawed ways in which they interact with each other. Whenever people encounter a frontier they are also encountering themselves. Advances in technology do not equal to advances in human understanding or behavior.
Obscure Authors and Other Missteps
Minor complaints with the book concern its occasional obscurity and a prolonged focus on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. For every reference to a widely recognizable work such as Moby-Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, or even Alan LeMay’s The Searchers (likely known because of the movie adaptation with John Wayne) there is another to Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart, O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth, or another book of specialized interest. One should expect this development when discussing such a specific topic; however it is discouraging for a reader to believe he or she has sufficient exposure to familiar texts to follow along only to be confronted by references to a work that has hitherto been read only by a handful of specialists.
On a similar note, nearly twenty pages are devoted almost solely to Gilman’s “The Giant Wistaria.” While the work fits the theme, it is doubtful that it is such an exemplar of frontier gothic to deserve such treatment. To have a substantial helping of Gilman lumped together slows down the reading. This complaint may be more a matter of organization than anything else.
American Expansion into the Wilderness
The book’s strongest feature is its commitment to its subject and belief in its importance. To this end it seriously treats the subject matter and produces ample scholarly support. As such it provides a viewpoint on American literature that might otherwise be marginalized and supports the perspective by showing how prevalent the theme was and has continued to be in American literary forms.
Mogen, David, Scott Sanders, and Joanne Karpinski. Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature. Toronto: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
© 2010 Seth Tomko