chapter  4
18 Pages

“Give me my skin”

William J. Snelling’s “A Night in the Woods” (1836) and the Gothic Accusation Against Buffalo Extinction
WithJimmy L. Bryan

In 1836, William J. Snelling published “A Night in the Woods” in which he revealed a deeply personal foreboding about the destruction of the buffalo and misgivings about US expansion. In the short story, a hunter kills and skins a lone buffalo bull upon a winter prairie. In the slayer’s dream, the robe-less buffalo, body dripping with gore, charges the hunter, imploring him, “Give me my skin—give me my skin.” The story continues in this gothic mood with a weird dance of buffaloes, transmogrification into wolves, and innards-consuming fleas. In this telling, the author plumbed the national angst instigated by the devastation of the North American buffalo. He conspicuously engaged the ecogothic that encoded, as Tom J. Hillard observes, “cultural anxieties about the natural world.” Specifically, Snelling preyed upon the national guilt over species extinction. David Del Principe sees this ecogothic reaction to the “commodification of animals” as a product of “the industrializing nineteenth century.” As earlier examples, Snelling and his contemporaries, like artist George Catlin or trader Josiah Gregg, intervened against the materialism of market capitalism and unmasked the troubling consequences of US expansion. Whether for trade or sport, the hunting of buffalo represented a performance of American avarice. Snelling, along with Catlin, Gregg and others, led a gothic insurgency against the prevailing optimism and chauvinism that defined the narrative of “manifest destiny.” They embraced the grotesque and terrible when they admonished their nation with tales of the buffalo becoming monstrous in defiance of its slaughter.