I’m currently reading Geoff Manaugh’s wonderfully thought provoking book modeled after his blog, The BLDGBLOG Book. Sorry, but a lot of my thoughts lately have had to do with architecture and design. I don’t think Manaugh would be upset that I’m borrowing from him. He’s a fierce proponent of letting your mind be the only filter for your writing, find disparate interests and connect them and let the critical juxtapositions think for themselves. For the book, Manaugh conducted an interview with Gothic novelist Patrick McGrath (Asylum, The Grotesque) about how environments influence that which we consider Gothic.
The topic brought me back a considerable distance in my life, back to where this whole blog really began: an advanced level English class at UW. Brian and I had just read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and came up with a pretty nice, consistent reading to discuss in class the next day. Upon listening to a few less sophisticated ideas, I shared my idea.
Briefly, Poe’s story tells the tale of a man trying to preserve his family legacy and pass on the name. We’re with him in his last days, as he becomes increasingly more insane and the Usher legacy implodes over a few quick reading pages. The story ends with the house of Usher collapsing, Usher’s legacy and mysteriousness trapped inside, and only the narrator left with any knowledge of what happened to Usher.
Brian and I argued, simply, that the actual story of the house’s collapse was Usher’s legacy. He couldn’t find a wife and resorted to grotesque and vulgar remedies, further dismantling whatever respect the Usher family held, and only a total collapse of the house made sense. The narrator would pass that legacy along, and everyone would know just how badly things had gotten for the Usher’s.
For whatever reason, this was not an acceptable reading of the text, and the professor decided it was in our best interest to try and figure out why Usher’s sister was sick in the first place. If I had read this interview with McGrath and his emphasis on Gothic environments, I would have felt a lot more vindicated in my reading:
I think you could safely say that one of the themes of the Gothic is the sins of the father being visited upon the sons—in other words, there is no escaping the past. The past will always haunt the present. And this is certainly true of Gothic stories that are set in crumbling old houses: There’s always some piece of evil that has occurred in a previous generation that will work itself out on the current generation.
Usher’s home is all of these things. Vaulted ceilings, spandrels, shadows, mysterious basements, it always seems to be raining. The past lives like mold in the basement or moss on a rock. McGrath posits that the weather in Gothic novels was once a pretty happenstance thing (England is wet and temperate, Poe and the first Gothic writers were English), but now it’s become a pretty important backdrop.
So why was our reading rejected? It’s something I will never know or fully understand. No one seemed willing to take the text beyond the pages, which I would argue is bogus because the story deals with legacy. However, now I am ready to have a more complete argument on the subject.
Read Poe’s story differently? Argue with us on Twitter (@midwestbeer), Facebook or send an email to email@example.com.