Category Archives: Gothic
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was once described as the last person to have read everything, so steeped in literature, philosophy, and learning was he. Certainly, he gave us a very useful phrase concerning good fiction: the expression ‘suspension of disbelief’ is a coinage of his, and describes the unofficial contract we all enter into when we read, or watch, fictional narratives. But he also gave us a few other useful words, notably ‘psychosomatic’ and ‘selfless’, and the first recorded use of ‘bisexual’ (although Coleridge used it to mean ‘androgynous’ or ‘containing both sexes’, rather than being attracted to persons of both sexes). In fact, he also led an eventful life including a spell in the Royal Dragoons, joining up under the name ‘Cumberbatch’.
Coleridge’s most famous poem appeared in the important 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, co-written with William Wordsworth. Despite its later significance, the book initially sold badly, and Wordsworth’s celebrated preface (containing the famous ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’ line, to describe poetic composition) didn’t appear until the second edition, in 1800. Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is among the most familiar in all of English literature. Critic William Empson suggested in an article of 1964 (reprinted in Argufying, 1987) that the slave trade informed the poem: although it isn’t mentioned explicitly anywhere in the poem, the themes of maritime expansion and collective guilt which the poem articulates feed directly into the contemporary context of discussion and debate about the slave trade (which was abolished in 1807, nine years after the poem appeared). Although Coleridge later altered his views on the slave trade, he was opposed to it when he wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship appears to have been invented in the poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s. Despite their successful working partnership, and friendship, during the years of the Lyrical Ballads, the two poets later became estranged from each other, especially as Wordsworth became more conservative in his later years.
(Right: statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet, Somerset. The albatross hangs round his neck.)
Coleridge’s other most famous poem is ‘Kubla Khan’, composed in 1797 though not published until 1816 (when Lord Byron, of all people, persuaded Coleridge to publish it). The story about the idea for the poem coming to Coleridge in a dream while he was under the influence of opium is true. However, there has been some disagreement over the claim that Coleridge was interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ while he was writing the poem (supposedly as he quickly recalled the visions of his opium-induced dream in those first waking moments). Some scholars and poets have suggested that Coleridge invented the person from Porlock as a convenient excuse for writer’s block – he couldn’t finish the poem, so invented a fictional interruption which would surround the poem with a sort of exciting folklore that would, in time, become more famous than the words of the poem itself.
As well as being an influential poet, Coleridge was also a gifted critic. Among his most frequently cited lines is the one in which he opines that the three most perfectly planned plots in the whole of literature are Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
Coleridge also appears to have been the first person to use the word ‘bipolar’, in 1810 – which is appropriate, since some recent critics and commentators believe the poet may have suffered from bipolar disorder.
Washington Irving. Who was that man? Find out just a handful of reasons why we should all have his name on our lips.
1. Washington Irving was named after the first official President of the United States of America. Born in 1783 in New York (the city that would loom large in his work), the American writer was named after the great American, George Washington. Of course, Washington only became President in 1789, but when Irving was born he was already known as an important founding father of the newly independent United States.
2. His first book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the Knickerbocker Glory. Irving’s first book was a humorous history of New York – yes, once again New York looms large in Irving’s life – and was a huge success. But one of the great linguistic legacies of the work was that it gave us the name ‘Knickerbocker’, which, following Irving’s book, came to be used as a name for an inhabitant of New York (or a ‘native New Yorker’, to quote from the song). The Knickerbocker Glory – a multi-coloured ice-cream sundae served in a tall glass – first appears in print in 1936 in a Graham Greene novel. The reasons for Irving’s Knickerbocker being associated with this colourful dessert probably have something to do with our third, related, interesting fact …
3. Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the word ‘knickers’. ‘Knickers’ has never been out of use since. Diedrich Knickerbocker was the fictional ‘author’ of Irving’s humorous ‘history’, and Knickerbocker came to be used for any New Yorker. However, within half a century the word was being used to describe ‘loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee, and worn by boys, sportsmen, and others who require a freer use of their limbs. The term has been loosely extended to the whole costume worn with these’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Why the shift in meaning? One theory, which the OED offers, is that such garments resembled the knee-breeches worn by Knickerbocker in British artist George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Irving’s History of New York. At any rate, ‘knickers’ had appeared by the 1880s, with the word shifting genders from men to women, and it has remained so ever since.
4. Irving was the first person to refer to New York as ‘Gotham City’. Yes, New York again. Irving first gave his hometown that sobriquet in 1807 in his satirical periodical Salmagundi. Irving borrowed the name from the Nottinghamshire village in England, which was reputedly inhabited by fools. (This legend itself derived from medieval times, and the tale of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’: the story goes that in the thirteenth century, King John wanted to build a hunting lodge near the village, but decided against it because the people of the village appeared to be very simple. Whenever the king’s men arrived they found villagers doing incredibly stupid things: attempting to drown eels, or rolling cheeses down a hill in the hope that they’d find their way to the Nottingham fair. The plan worked and John moved his lodge elsewhere.) Interestingly, the Nottinghamshire village is pronounced ‘Goat-em’, whereas the nickname for New York is always ‘Goth-em’. Of course, since Irving first Christened New York ‘Gotham’, the Batman comic strip and films have cemented the phrase ‘Gotham City’ firmly in the American – and, indeed, the world’s – psyche.
5. Irving wrote the fairy story of Rip Van Winkle. The story of the man who goes to sleep in the Catskill mountains and wakes up years later to find his wife dead and his son grown up was written by Irving while he was staying in England, in 1819. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for twenty years, not a hundred: some think he sleeps for a century because the tale is confused with Sleeping Beauty.
6. He also wrote ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. This was written a year after ‘Rip’, in 1820, and was, of course, made into the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Irving is best-known for these two fairy tales.
7. He gave us the phrase ‘the almighty dollar’. Not much to add on this one, except to say that he coined this phrase in 1837 in his story ‘The Creole Village’.
8. Irving was responsible for the ‘flat earth’ myth. Once more, we’re in the realm of foolish medieval folk. According to Jeffrey Russell in his 1991 book Inventing the Flat Earth, it was Irving’s 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus which cemented the myth that medieval people thought the world was flat, whereas Columbus believed it was round. Indeed, the main bone of contention in the 1490s – at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World – was more the size, rather than the shape of the world. But sometimes a myth can be more powerful than fact, and many still believe that Columbus’s contemporaries all thought the world was flat and it might be possible to sail over the edge of it. Why did Irving invent the story then? Possibly to make Columbus look even more of a man ahead of his time than he was, as the great man who helped to found the New World, Irving’s own homeland.
9. Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas. Charles Dickens often gets the credit for inventing the modern Christmas, with goodwill to everyone, the resurrection of old and formerly outdated customs, and the big Christmas feast. It’s certainly true that before the early nineteenth century, the older Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages had waned, but it was not Dickens who first began to popularise them again. Dickens himself was greatly influenced by Irving. Indeed, the anonymously published 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (also known as ”Twas the night before Christmas’) also gets the credit for inventing the mythlore of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and reindeer, but Irving was ahead of this poem, too: in 1812 he added passages to his revised Knickerbocker’s History of New York which helped to foster this renewed interest in the idea of Santa Claus. Like Dickens, he wrote five Christmas stories, and, like Dickens also, he championed traditional festive customs which had fallen out of favour (and which he had experienced while staying in England shortly before this). So next time you’re sipping your eggnog round a festive fire, raise your glass in a toast to Irving, the man who helped to invent Christmas as we know it.
If you enjoyed this feast of facts, check out our interesting facts about Margaret Atwood.
By Tracy L. Bealer, Colorado State University
Power, good looks, and a preoccupation with penetration. These qualities unexpectedly describe both privileged masculinity and vampires. With their preternatural strength, lethal attractiveness, and penetrative fangs, the figure of the vampire has long been understood, by Nina Auerbach and others, as a literary and cinematic representative of the hypermasculine ideal. The vampire in fiction has his origins in John Polidori’s 1819 novella The Vampyre, written as part of the same ghost-story competition which also gave us Frankenstein (Polidori was, along with Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, one of Byron’s guests at Lake Geneva during 1816). After that, the most famous one to appear was, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which appeared in 1897. However, towards the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the so-called sympathetic vampire began to complicate that equation. Characters like Angel in Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel; Edward Cullen in Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight Saga; the Salvatore brothers in The Vampire Diaries; and Bill Compton in True Blood inhabit hypermasculine bodies but struggle mightily against the dominative and lethal predilections those bodies (and the literary genres in which they find themselves) encourage and excuse.
My current and future research aims to explore the progressive possibilities offered by the twenty-first century sympathetic vampire, through the lens of gender and genre theory. By investigating the ways these characters resist what Kaja Silverman and other contemporary feminist theorists term “toxic masculinity” through a supernatural framework, I suggest that vampirism provides a workable model for dismantling gender privilege. Though Angel, Edward, Stefan, and Bill have bodies that are designed for domination, particularly of the human women they fall in love with, their repeated attempts to work through their bloodlust can be read as a metaphor for how equitable relationships can be constructed in a masculinist world.
I am also interested in how genre conventions inflect and complicate this problematic. Angel, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, seems, in its early seasons, to be consciously citing visual and textual cues from film noir. The hardboiled heroes of these stories are often violent and emotionally closed off—characteristics that make them successful detectives, but woeful friends and lovers. Angel, because he is a vampire with a soul, cannot allow himself to be similarly isolated from human, due to the risk of descending back into the very evil he is pledged to combat. The first two seasons of the series in particular investigate how Angel negotiates the benefits (physical strength) and drawbacks (pesky bloodlust) of vampirism in a detective fiction context. I will be presenting a talk at this year’s Pop Culture Association conference in Washington D.C. that discusses this dichotomy entitled “Fang Noir: Revamping the Hardboiled Hero in Joss Whedon’s Angel.”
The series-long existential crisis articulated by Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga gives depth and philosophical import to a melodramatic plot. Because he is brave, noble, and handsome, Edward conforms to the stereotype of the melodramatic hero. However, he is not fearless, as most melodramatic heroes tend to be. His anxiety stems from the terror that he will indulge his impulses towards anger, jealousy, and lethal violence—traits assigned to villains in melodrama, and all related to his vampirism. As Edward articulates, he is the good guy and the bad guy, and the only resolution to this internal ambivalence is found through loving Bella, the teenaged human heroine of the novels. Though Bella often finds herself in need of physical rescue, Edward in many ways is a demon in distress, needing to be “rescued” from his vampiric and isolationist impulses through loving Bella. This generic gender inversion, along with Edward’s commitment to imaginatively projecting himself into Bella’s more fragile body in order to protect her from his supernatural strength, feminizes his character in a way that does not make him less masculine, but rather more empathetic. Whereas melodrama typically positions women in a passive and vulnerable state, the Twilight Saga subversively makes its hero embody the typically masculine and feminine characteristics endemic to the genre. This angle looks to extend the argument about Edward’s progressive masculinity found in my chapter in Bringing Light to Twilight.
I am working towards a book-length project that will additionally explore True Blood’s Bill Compton in terms of the Southern Gothic genre, and the Salvatore brothers of The Vampire Diaries in the context of the Novel of Manners. Each of these figures takes a traditionally heteronormative hero and, by and through his vampirism, suggests a more progressive and equitable way of inhabiting a masculine body. That, I contend, makes these characters’ phenomenal popularity not only culturally interesting, but politically important.
Tracy L. Bealer teaches composition at Colorado State University and blogs at Once More with Geekery. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all comments and reading suggestions relating to vampires both sparkly and not.