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Using Edgar Huntly or Memories of a Sleep-walker to Teach Gothic Literature

One genre of literature that some students and teachers find appealing is that of Gothic Literature, which has unique qualities that set it apart from other types of literature, including, but not limited to, an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, supernatural events and intense emotions. All of these elements can be found in Charles Brockden Brown’s novel, Edgar Huntly or, Memories of a Sleep-Walker. Brown’s novel is a perfect way to teach students the key elements of Gothic literature, while also having them delve into an intricate work of early American literature. The introduction of the novel insists that each age needs its own literary form as he rejects the idea of “Gothic castles and chimeras” (4), but readers will quickly see the use of these typical Gothic elements in the novel.  According to Shapiro in the novel’s introduction, this is done to show the “uncertainty of tumbling forward into a modern, post feudal society that both requires and produces new modes of social consciousness and new forms of human interaction” (xxv). In this sense, Brown’s use of Gothic elements acts as symbols to show the unclear transition to the new. Regardless of the underlying purpose or deeper symbolism of the Gothic elements, students from all age groups should be able to find and analyze these Gothic elements in some capacity.

Brown’s novel has an atmosphere of mystery and suspense during the telling of Clithero’s story, and probably more so in Huntly’s own story about his adventures in the cave, killing of the Indians, panther, and his attempted journey home. He tells about his encounter with the panther in intense emotion as he states, “There was no time for deliberation and delay. In a moment he might spring from his station and tear me to pieces… I did not reflect how far my strength was adequate to save me” (112).  This shows that he is not thinking and acting on emotion alone, a common element in Gothic literature. The elements of sleepwalking in the novel are almost supernatural as Huntly begins to doubt his own senses. For example, in the opening of his letter to his fiancée, Mary, he states, “… in proportion as my tale is deliberate and slow, the incidents and motives which it is designed to exhibit will be imperfectly revived and obscurely pourtrayed” (5). He later in the novel explains, “These… gradually produced a species of delirium. I existed as it were in a wakeful dream” (108). This inability to distinguish between dream and reality is the supernatural element of the novel that makes it uniquely Gothic. In the article, “The Hidden Landscape of Edgar Huntly,” Tole states, “The kind of sensory stimuli that Edgar Huntly most often received is infused with a quality of negation and imminent loss. He can truly encounter the world only at the point of being cut off from it, in the interval between possession and loss” (135).

Lastly, while there are many other elements of Gothic literature found in Brown’s novel, there is none as evident as the description of the cave with eerie similarities to that of Dark Romantic Literature and, more particularly, “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He describes the cave as being “somewhat circular, about six miles in diameter… the streams that burst forth from every crevice, are thrown, by irregularities of the surface, into numberless cascades, often disappear in mists or in chasms” (67). This part of the novel can be analyzed by students in a variety of ways and used in the classroom to teach different things, such as imagery and symbolism.  Tawii states in the article, “New Forms of Sublimity: Edgar Huntly and the European Origins of American Exceptionalism,” that Brown used fiction “not only to provide instances of ‘American romance’ but also to guide readers’ reception to this new mode along the way… thereby to fashion a new species of romance” (106-107). In Tawii’s view, Brown uses the typical elements of Gothic literature in a new way to create a uniquely American type of Gothic fiction. While this idea may be too difficult for high school students to understand, it is especially important for college literature students in understanding the origins and evolution of early American literature.

In the English classroom, Edgar Huntly should be used in accordance to the level of students one is teaching. While students at the high school level may be able to read only parts of the novel and find the Gothic elements, they may not understand the deeper symbolism of the landscape and its historical connotations.  This novel can be used in connection with other pieces of Gothic work such as Edgar Allan Poe, or Shelley’s Frankenstein. An easy connection to make with students would be to use Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” and to have students compare and contrast these two pieces of work. Brown’s novel gives teacher a new and unique way to teach Gothic literature as this novel is not often in conventional curriculum’s or textbooks, but has many examples of Gothic literature that will help students understand this genre in a more complex manner.

Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. ). Ed. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro. Hackett. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006. Print.

Tawil, Ezra. “”New Forms of Sublimity”: “Edgar Huntly” and the European Origins of American Exceptionalism.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 40.1/2, The Early American Novel (2007): 104-24. Print.

Toles, George. “Charting the Hidden Landscape: “Edgar Huntly”.” Early American Literature 16.2 (1981): 133-53. Print.


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