Book Review:

The Haunted States of America: Gothic Regionalism in Post-war American Fiction,

by James Morgart

Reviewed by Ilse Schrynemakers

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Review of James Morgart's The Haunted States of America: Gothic Regionalism in Post-war American Fiction, University of Wales Press, 2022. 256 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1786838766). Kindle (ASIN:‎ B0B25M86H9). 

The Haunted States of America begins with a comprehensive introduction that anticipates questions about the breadth and scope of the book: Why study Gothic conventions and regional literature together? Why do so with regards to post-World War II fiction? It quickly answers both these questions. The combined study of both the Gothic style and regional literature provides readers with a direct means to unearth fractures and divisions within post-World War II America despite the dominant, public narrative of a ‘unified’ nation. This introduction builds readers’ interest in the more detailed analyses anticipated in the successive chapters of the book.

Chapter One focuses exclusively on Southern literary history. It opens with an historical overview of how the Gothic tradition was used to target the Other—anyone other than a white Southern gentleman. By the mid-nineteenth century, Gothic conventions became the means for the oppressed to “haunt back” (see ch. 6, Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America, Columbia UP, 1997). These observations are supported by brief, but pointed and powerful examples from slave narratives. This analysis lays the foundation for how post-World War II novelists skillfully and convincing showed not only the horror in the deeply rooted culture of the Old South but also the ridiculousness of what’s deemed grotesque and monstrous. Literature examined include Intruder in the Dust and Lie Down in Darkness. Both texts expose the lies perpetuating more lies regarding the character of African Americans, the emotional capabilities of the mentally and physically disabled, and demonization of women.

Chapter Two centers on the New England region. As the previous chapter has done, this one starts with the roots of Gothic conventions in the region, so readers can understand how each successive half-century of writers subverted those traditions. Puritans found anyone not followers of their religion as other and thus monstrous, and so Hawthorne famously in the nineteenth-century exposed the monstrosity of the Puritans with his use of Gothic conventions. Mid-twentieth century would employ Gothic conventions for a similar purpose but this time to expose the scandalous behavior and depravity of those respected in post-war, patriarchal society—and the oppressive weight of expected conformity. Given this premise, James Mogart convincingly classifies Peyton Place as Gothic literature.

Chapter Three travels to the Midwest and engagingly dives into how a Midwestern identity grew out of the post-Civil War wounds—a place on to which Northerners and Southerners could project their own individual notions of pastoral ideas—and collectively define the virtues of small-town life. In the years thereafter, writers turned to Gothic tropes to critique this small-town life and reveal the grotesque in the nation’s championing of its virtues. The chapter highlight is the in-depth discussion of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and Bradbury’s ultimate commentary—of just how much this region lacked any salvific powers, any type of respite for postwar America—were crafted through how Bradbury intertwines Gothic conventions throughout his fiction.

The last two chapters center on the east and west coasts, New York and California. The former establishes how the 19th-century stories of New York trumpet how this region, apart from anywhere else, is rich with opportunity for hard working and morally upright individuals.  Chester Himes, in his detective fiction located in Harlem, exposed the impossibility of this notion for any Black New Yorker, whose legacy of commitment and contributions to the city were long ignored. Himes’ detective fiction reveals how Black New Yorkers had no chance at upper mobility. The novels’ constant unveiling of the grotesque, the exploitation, and the real-life horrors in the daily lives of Black New Yorkers showcases African Americans suffering abject poverty at the hands of policies enforced by white supremacists. Postwar crime fiction, most notably the works of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, is also at the center of the book’s final chapter. Chandler and Macdonald both employ Gothic conventions to reveal the evils of capitalism and, in particular, the Hollywood machine that causes the sufferings of women and minorities. Each story, though a new plot line, returns to again and again a familiar trope in crime fiction: problems will continue to permeate, until the truth emerges from beneath the many layers of deception.

The Haunted States of America’s impressive breadth and scope are at once novel and familiar. Its detailed and comprehensive explanations translate into a valuable resource for educators looking to create literature courses that are thematically linked to all that’s shared here. The book’s chapters easily create outlines and reading lists for courses’ specific units, and educators may be inspired to consider new ways to teach American literature courses. If there is one criticism, it is that Mogart knows and shares too much of the history of the Gothic tradition and the literature of America before World War II. At times, it seems a two-volume set would have been more apt—thus leaving room to unpack more precisely the zeitgeist of post-World War America (with all its complexities, not just McCarthyism) and writers’ use of popular (often seen as non-literary) genres—detective fiction and science fiction—to capture marginalized sentiment. It would have been another fine opportunity for the author to disclose the novelty of the book’s argument in conversation with the plethora of scholarship already centered on postwar writers, and in particular, how they characterized pervasive anxieties and fears despite national rhetoric parading America’s promise and prosperity.   

-9 July 2024