Document Packet: Beloved and the American Gothic
The image above comes from a collection of stories about the Underground Railroad published in 1872. William Still, the book’s editor, was a prominent African-American abolitionist and organizer of the Underground Railroad. He compiled the stories in this volume to commemorate the deeds of the slaves and Railroad organizers who aided their search for freedom.
I selected this image and a few passages of text that accompany it for a document packet that myself and a collaborator created at work. For the last year, we have been creating these packets for teachers to help expose the Newberry’s collections to them by connecting items like this to the large themes of a particular professional development seminar. In this case, the seminar leader chose to focus on the Gothic conventions that Toni Morrison employs in Beloved to depict the harsh violence and repression of the memory of that violence that has marked the history of slavery.
We present a series of questions both about the large themes that run through the packet, but also about each particular item in the packet. The questions tend to be stated plainly enough that a teacher could feasibly place them in front of high school students and generate discussion. At the same time, the questions allow us to communicate to the reader of the packet what the document is about and why the person selecting it things it is significant. The challenge for me, having never been a secondary teacher, is to strike the right tone and to avoid asking leading questions.
After the questions, we present the selected document with a caption at the top. In the case of the image of Henry Box Brown, I selected the image and on a second page included two passages from the narrative that Still includes in the book. I was particularly interested in a brief description of one of the members Underground Railroad going to pick up the box supposedly containing Brown. The passage is crafted to convey suspense, and a sense of dread. In particular, the man fervently believes that he smell’s the stench of death hanging over the box, which ends up not containing Brown at all.
The second passage describes the scene during which the crate containing Brown is unpacked and the onlookers stand by in suspense. Here I foucsed on a very simple statement that “The onlookers would never forget that moment” and was interested in how the Gothic effects of suspense and horror helped to make the scene memorable. Or, put another way, the onlookers would never forget their encounter with the Gothic, and, by extension, neither would the reader.
The point of the packet, then, was to find documents where Gothic conventions, which even by the early 19th century had become easy targets for burlesque, provide a range of tools for affecting the reader’s or onlooker’s emotional response to an event, and thus their remembering of that event