Jimmy Packham, Gothic Utterance: Voice, Speech and Death in the American Gothic. (University of Wales Press, 2021. 256 pages) ISBN 9781786837547
It is difficult to conceive of the Gothic (either as an aesthetic mode or as an historical genre) without voices, be they the disembodied spectral whispers in a haunted castle or the grand, Miltonic monologuing of villains. Jimmy Packham’s new study Gothic Utterance: Voice, Speech and Death in the American Gothic offers a provocative and innovative reading of the role of voices in relation to the Gothic, one that is well overdue in Gothic studies. Packham’s ambitious study focuses on the rich, thematically ambiguous relationship between the voice, subjectivity, and death in nineteenth-century American Gothic fiction – what he terms “the voices of the dead, the dying, the revenant and the abjected” (p.3). In so doing, Packham’s study provides a provocative contribution to the field of American Gothic literature, as well as to readings of Gothic fiction that are attentive to issues of the body, subjectivity, and mortality. Moreover, by focusing his study specifically on the American Gothic while attending to the influence of earlier British Gothic modes, Gothic Utterance contributes to transatlantic Gothic studies that seek to align early American concerns of nationhood, racial violence, and colonialism with the aesthetic and political concerns found in earlier British Gothic fiction. By arguing that there is a radically empowering instrumentality as well as terror inherent to the voice in American Gothic fiction, Packham’s reading presents the American Gothic landscape as a compelling paradox, embodying the terrors of disruption and destabilization but also offering agency to suppressed or forgotten voices.
By contextualizing the American Gothic in relationship to both earlier British Gothic modes and questions respecting national identity in nineteenth-century American culture, Packham’s study necessarily approaches its subject from both a historicist and formalist perspective. These dual methodologies serve the ambitious and complex scope of this study, allowing Gothic Utterance the ability to take individual authors such as Charles Brockden Brown, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe on their own terms while comprehending them within the context of American literary culture and the broader transatlantic Gothic movement. Furthermore, Packham’s introduction makes clear that in dealing with the voice, his study not only involves the negotiation of individual authorship and the mythos of hegemonic national identity, but also involves the affective engagement of “the body as well as the mind” (p.17). Packham deftly connects this attention to bodily affect with his interest in issues of nationhood by arguing that affective response serves as a fundamental method of engaging different modes of subjectivity in these narratives, including repressed and marginalized subjects within American culture. As Packham writes, “the Gothic is fundamentally invested in voice and utterance, and the unsettling affects they produce, as phenomena capable of disrupting easy or superficial distinctions between different subjectivities, between selves and their Others; consequently, it is invested in the promise thereby established to reinvent and reimagine prevailing relations, hierarchies, modes of being and so on” (p.16).
Perhaps the most compelling and critical element of Gothic Utterance as an intervention in Gothic studies is the way in which Packham argues that the declarative voice is an essential element of America’s self-conceptualization of nationhood. Packham further argues that the Gothic both reinforces and subverts this trend by redefining the voice outside of and even against various types of hegemony. In so doing, Packham offers a complex vision of the American Gothic as a hyperbolic genre that is both radically unsettling, even horrifying, yet equally radical in its expansive and potentially empowering effect: an argument that retains the Kristevan, abjecting horrors of the genre while also remaining attentive to the positive as well as disruptive effects of these fictive terrors. As Packham writes, “I am interested here in both the shock of the voice and how one works back from that shock towards communion” (p.17).
In his chapter on Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, Packham analyzes the more frightening depictions of the voice in the American Gothic, arguing that in the terror tales of Poe and in Melville’s Pierre, both authors depict voices that are connected to death or to a repressed past. These voices possess the protagonists and ultimately rob them of agency while bringing them close to death or under the power of a subjectivity separate from their own. In his following chapter on the fiction of female Gothic authors Louisa May Alcott and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Packham shifts from a focus on the dark, destabilizing effects of the voice to a more positive rendering of the repressed voice of the dead. Packham presents a compelling argument that these novels retain an interest in the voice’s connection to the dead, but that these post-war texts offer a celebratory rather than disempowering perspective on the “thanatic voice,” one that bridges class distinctions as well as the seemingly insurmountable gulf between the living and the dead. In the third chapter, Packham reads the narratives of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Brockden Brown as Gothic commentaries on the colonialist fear of the “howling” American wilderness, depicting encounters with voices (non-human, spectral, etc.) that are separate from the living, colonist perspective from which these narratives are told. Packham’s argument here unites the terrors explored in the first chapter with the radical implications in the second chapter, arguing that the voices that colonialism suppresses are prone to violent and unsettling eruptions.
In the following chapter, Packham explores the way in which authors such as Victor Séjour, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles W. Chestnutt developed this concept of the Gothic voice in their slave narratives, giving the ‘unspeakable’ horror of slavery a voice. Citing Frederick Douglass’s description of slavery as a violently repressed, voiceless state akin to death, Packham expands upon his earlier discussions of spectral/undead voices in relation to slave narratives in American fiction, providing a compelling argument that these authors employ Gothic tropes in order to communicate the horrors of slavery rather than sensationalize or exploit them. In the final chapter, Packham reads the war narratives of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce as narratives that engage with the complex relationship between language and death, arguing that these authors present death as either destructive to language or violently usurping the power of language from the province of the living. As in the previous chapters, Packham’s engagement with the voice is linked to subjectivity as well as mortality. As he writes, these wartime narratives “demonstrate the precarity of human communities and wartime subjectivities immersed in a world of death,” employing the Gothic undead voice as a way of not only entering the perspective of wartime casualties but showing the traumatic seepage of martial violence into the consciousness of living subjectivities (p.191).
If there is any potential drawback to Packham’s study, it is that the sheer ambition of its scope leaves a desire for a further expansion of his compelling and complex study of the relationship between the voice, mortality, and subjectivity in relation to national identity. Yet this is, perhaps, one of the greatest strengths of this book: Packham’s study not only develops a crucial link between the tropes of the British Gothic novel and the burgeoning American Gothic genre, but provides a study that opens fresh avenues of scholarship. Further explorations into the theory of the declarative/subjective voice in relation to the project of establishing a unique American identity and literary voice would be welcome and Packham’s complex argument provides an essential starting place for further scholarly interventions in this field. Additionally, scholars of both British and American fiction with an interest in issues of affect and sympathy will find Packham’s theory of the voice an indispensable contribution.
Review by Colin Azariah-Kribbs