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NIGHTMARE ON MAIN STREET by Mark Edmundson

NIGHTMARE ON MAIN STREET

Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic

By Mark Edmundson

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1997
ISBN: 0-674-87484-6
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

 What do Richard Nixon, Freddy Krueger, O.J. Simpson, and Edgar Allan Poe have in common with one another--but not with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ralph Waldo Emerson? Answer: The former express our nation's cult of gothic guilt and fear; the latter are potential models of redemption. Edmundson (English/Univ. of Virginia) argues that the gothic mindset, exemplified in lurid classics of the late 18th century (e.g., Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Lewis's The Monk) dominates contemporary American culture. From these works he distills categories that he finds ubiquitous in modern pop culture, including protagonists equally divided between good and wicked selves, scenarios in which dungeons or other underground scenes of sadomasochistic horror figure prominently, the hidden past that refuses to die (in recovered-memory syndrome), and so forth. Racism is, above all else, the part of the American past that refuses to die, haunting us in fiction (Toni Morrison's Beloved), in the news (O.J.), and in cinema. Edmundson has written an entertaining and thoughtful book, but his overly elastic thesis occasionally gets the better of his good judgment. He is prone to write outlandish things, making his book at times a lurid bit of American gothic itself. His arguments often fall into the categories he criticizes: Poe, for example, is Emerson's evil twin in the American tradition (his America seems divided between angels and incubi). Though he justifiably scorns the recent angel craze as an expression of phony transcendence, he also presents Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, and even Nietzsche as angels of a sort (he calls them ``visionaries'') who might deliver us from our abject need. One might say that this book's thesis belongs in the American tradition of cultural pessimism, the very malady for which it purports to be the cure. Even though Edmundson's main thesis is overdrawn, his book is rewarding. It has many startling insights, shrewd observations, and considerable narrative momentum.