A Review of “American Gothic Literature”

Ruth Bienstock Anolik, 2019, McFarland & Company Inc. 306 pages


Like the genre it examines, this work is insightful, inspiring, exhilarating, and challenging. However, it is not for the faint of heart! A somewhat exhaustive look at the history and current state of American Gothic literature, Ruth Bienstock Anolik takes the reader on a tour of not just a uniquely American literature, but of the emergence of an American identity derived from its Old World beginnings.

Unlike many other mainstream works it has an emphasis on the marginalized and powerless peoples of America that is uncommon. While it does not attempt to allow these peoples to speak for themselves, as might expect of a work of a literary history, it does effectively revel many stories through an examination of academic works. While this might sound dry the author makes excellent use of broad overarching themes contrasted with small details that draw the readers’ attention. For example, the work effectively moves between examinations of 17th and 18th century European folk tales and modern American Gothic/Science Fiction novels to point out “hidden” themes of feminism, alienation, oppression and dispossession that might otherwise be lost to readers of both types of literature. In this way the author links such disparate works as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” with Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” and “He, She and It” by Marge Piercy to show how they inhabit a shared space and each contributes to American Literature in unexpected ways. Gothic tropes are examined, placed in context to their world and re-examined to show how they contribute to the understanding of our (modern American) world.

American Gothic’s central theme is that Gothic literature, although confined to it’s own tropes is also very flexible, further, America has produced it’s own version of Gothic literature. This version grew out of the English and American writers who have dealt with this situation since the birth of our country. “American writers are haunted by feelings of inadequacy, and of guilt, as American literature finds itself haunted by the looming ghost of its predecessor, English literature.”⁠1  In spite of this, American Gothic has evolved to become a mature literature that is used to explore American issues. As Ms. Anolik points out, while examining an American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slave Cassy takes possession of herself by appropriating the Gothic narrative; in materializing Legreee’s fears, Cassy is able to make her escape and repossess her body from the bonds of chattel slavery. These examples illustrate the uses of the Gothic for the disposed and insecure American writer.”⁠2

Ruth Anolik is not afraid of drawing conclusions from her source material, this is more of an essay meant to persuade us of a point of view than a history textbook. Her conclusions are logical and placed within the context of what she examines, and they are likely to surprise some people. They range from the subtle and somewhat obscure; for example, she points out the association of the feminine with the dybbuk and the masculine with the golem, to the more controversial association of Vampires and Zombies to the modern American aristocrat. Her language is for the most part value-free; she relies on the example she chooses and the writers examined words to help her make her points. Even though much attention is devoted to issues of marginalization and feminism social commentary is subtle and can be easily missed if the reader does not pay attention. All-in-all, this is a well-researched work with valuable insights. This work is highly recommended to those who are interested in American Literature or the Gothic in general.


1 P. 10

2 P. 272

The Good

Interesting thesis

Well researched

The Bad

Occasionally gets lost in the details

Sometimes difficult to follow