Today my story “Our Dearly Departed” went live on Coffee House Writers. Thank you so much to my friend Seth for all of his help on the fact-checking and historical research for this story. He’s actually the inspiration for writing a western and has been a huge encouragement to me breaking out of writing in the American Gothic genres in more regions across the United States.
This story focuses on the subject of post-mortem photography and how it was used in the era of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. For those that could afford photography sessions in the territories, a luxury service not afforded to most people unlike in eastern states, it was all about creating a facade of preserved standard of living to share with the family back home. This involved false windows, painted backdrops, and curating a scene that matched what people wanted their families to believe, even in death. Given the expense, the photographer was called out to a home for births, deaths, and marriages only if they didn’t have a studio set up yet. Most photographers traveled until the 1890s – 1900s when the railroads allowed town populations to grow enough to sustain studio spaces, as opposed to the photographer traveling to each individual business request. These areas would later become “the flyover states.”
I will write more on the subjects of western cabinet card era photography (post-mortem, momento mori, mourning, etc), as well as how it differed across various regions of the United States, and how it intersected with American Spiritualism and legal fraud in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this short story inspired by my research so far with cultural and historic details assisted by a dear friend and someone I would consider extremely knowledgable on the West. Hopefully my skills at writing American Gothic style period pieces pertaining to this region of the United States improves.
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great day! Remember to breathe 🙂
Listen – you’re going to see a lot of posts involving inspiration from Reddit’s /r/Mapporn or similar subreddits. I love maps and I’m a very visual/spatial thinker. Sometimes these will make you laugh and sometimes these will make you scratch your head because I’m posting a map about the percentage of first-cousin marriages per population found in each region of Turkey (see below) and wonder “how does this relate to Southern Gothic?” Well, no one’s dared to make one of these maps for the United States as far as I can tell. Cowards.
I promise it will all make sense. Now take a deep breath and listen for the imaginary banjos playing “Turkey In The Straw.”
Gene Puddles And Regionalism
I grew up in mostly small town areas, save a few years in Northern Virginia. When living somewhere for generations with five other family names to choose from in terms of social circles, let alone dating, it’s not uncommon for people to accidentally date their cousin(s). Or date their cousin(s) on purpose – I don’t know the culture and I don’t want to judge. I’m from the American South (yes, a weird edge-case part of it). I’ve seen a lot of weird things happen at family reunions.
I knew people in high school that accidentally ran into the person they were dating at their family reunions. Yes, that’s plural.
Isolation and deeply intertwined family histories breed family lore in the South and throughout the United States. Genealogy is a big deal because family lore stretches back for generations. I love this and I love my family – in our own genetic and paper trail based research, we have found some unique family scandals. This lore is where American Gothic stories find many of their metaphorical/literal skeletons and demons to unearth and/or summon to expose. It’s a safe way to discuss the atrocities committed by and done to our ancestors without shame or guilt – instead we can say, “This Is America” with honesty and fun colloquial phrases. The horrors of our past become ghost stories, biopic hero legends, hauntings, crazed outlaws and precautionary tales of devil encounters that act as reflections of reality.
Deeply Flawed Close-Knit Families
The isolated small town communities across the United States provide the most incredible inspiration for American Gothic writing. Growing up in the South I tend to focus on Southern Gothic, but American Gothic includes New England Gothic, Midwestern Gothic, Pacific Northwest Gothic, Southwestern Gothic (aka Western Gothic). When I write American Gothic and Southern Gothic short stories I think about these close knit family ties between characters. The story a reader sees will only show a small portion of the full cast of characters.
In my short story, “The Disappearance of Lula Mae Darling” I choose to introduce readers to the characters of Lula Mae Darling, Uncle Rod, Becca Lynn, and Henry “Hank” Bryan. But I mention other characters and the types of relationships all of the characters have with each other around this family business, the gas station off I-95 near a South Of The Border billboard.
I waffled on how to include Lula Mae’s mother and absent father in the story. I knew their presences (or lack thereof) were essential for communicating the concept of “Southern Escapism,” and the social and economic disparities that lead to the development of this pattern of behavior.
That is not to say that the Darling family does not demonstrate unconditional love toward one another, even with their extreme differing and, in the case of Uncle Rod, bigoted opinions. In these small town communities you’re all each other has, even with these deep, painful disagreements.
In another short story I am currently submitting, I discuss a family that dies out over the course of several years after they elect to discontinue their own family trade and traditions in favor of gaining additional status and power to join the elite upper class.
I try not be heavy handed in my discussions and criticisms of cultural nuances. No reader enjoys being beaten over the head with the author’s opinions as far as I’m aware. This is why I focus on writing stories in the way I like to read them: nuanced with the ability to take from it as much or as little as I want with each read.
What Is And Is Not American Gothic?
One of the problems that constantly needs to be addressed in all American Gothic genres, particularly Southern Gothic, is glorification. An unfortunate problem with these genres is that many readers and authors have become confused by the inclusion of antebellum or “Good Ol’ Days” glorification narratives. Glorification is not the point of these genres, nor should literature focusing on glorification be included in these genres. I do like the phrasing of themes used in the opening introduction of the Southern Gothic Wikipedia page. “Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may be involved in hoodoo, decayed or derelict settings,grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.” I extend this to include several other factors as well. One such being the deep stratification of society that remains as a result of failure to reconstruct the Southern economy and deconstruct social, economic, and legal power structures after the Civil War.
Throughout the South there is the omnipresent racism in language use while individuals will claim it does not influence their actions across these stratifications in modern day, but stepping backward in time reveals stronger influence in action. With these deep societal divides, some horrifying community-wide behaviors can be found in historically impoverished and non-slave holding, religious Southern communities such as something akin to the Tall Poppy Syndrome. This same or similar societal strata is often associated with the worst oppressive reinforcement of racial divides thanks to the influence of white elites. This still persists to this day and gives a lot for American Gothic authors to write about.
There’s an unfortunate part, particularly among class preservationists that would prefer to reinforce Tall Poppy Syndrome among the lower strata. They pretend none of these problems existed and instead glorify only specific details, pretending anything unsavory, shameful, or embarrassing never happened. This still happens today with modern issues and is a common problem throughout the South. I have no doubt that this is the origin of Jenny Lawson’s memoir title “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.”
A great example of a book where this happened and was culturally amplified was “Gone With The Wind.”
Why I Dislike “Gone With The Wind”
At one point I mentioned not being a fan of “Gone With The Wind” by Margaret Mitchell and the movie related to this book. I have seen this book listed on “Top Ten” lists for Southern Gothic Literature. I do not believe this book belongs on those lists. I personally believe it was poorly written and its publication and success is more indicative of the politics of the United States in the mid-1930s than it is of the book’s quality or value to history beyond the significance at its time of publication. The book was poorly written compared to other books written by other female authors at the time to the extent that even the book’s editor, Harold Latham, almost refused the book due to its poor writing, but changed his mind after deciding the story was more important than the bad writing. He went so far as to tell Mitchell it was “the worst looking manuscript he’d ever seen.” What changed Harold Latham’s mind about the story? According to the telegraph Mitchell received regarding her manuscript, most likely, it was due to the “Advisers” at Macmillan Publishing.
Margaret Mitchell wrote the book based on her correspondences with exclusively white Southerners while writing for The Atlanta Journal. After the book’s publication and shortly before her death the majority of these correspondences were burned, leaving historians unable to confirm the contents. An additional interesting detail to note is that one article on Margaret Mitchell notes that she was even raised by her family to believe that the South had originally won the Civil War.
I am under the firm belief that the only reason “Gone With The Wind” became popularized to the extent it did was due to the campaign efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the marketing efforts of New York’s Macmillan Publishing, and the planned success of its film adaptation. Margaret Mitchell was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy and received an award from them for “Gone With The Wind”.
Given the timing of the publication of “Gone With The Wind” it comfortably fits in among the 1930s Era of the American Eugenics Movement and the rise to power of Southern Confederate “cultural preservation” groups. It advanced the antebellum narratives that they wished to push and helped to define the vision of the Old South that they claimed they wished to fight to preserve, while silencing Black voices during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. It is important to note that the majority of marketing efforts to use the book and film as pro-Confederacy propaganda did not take off until after Margaret Mitchell’s death, particularly during the 1960s in response to the Civil Rights movement.
American Small Towns = Gene Puddles = One Of The Sources Of Material For American Gothic Literature
Gene Puddles = Close Knit Families That Are Deeply Flawed But Love Each Other Unconditionally
Glorification Of “Good Ol’ Days” Is A Problem And Does Not Belong In American Gothic Literature
I Don’t Like “Gone With The Wind” – This Is A Personal Opinion
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As Always, Thank You For Reading – Without You These Words Are Floating In A Void Of Approximately 1,200 Petabytes.