chapter  7
20 Pages

“The Birth-Mark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and the Ecogothic

WithLesley Ginsberg

Treatments of the environment in American literary histories still skew heavily toward the romantic; the gothic remains a vexed term. The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011) devotes less than ten of its almost 1, 200 pages to the gothic and relegates discussion of “ecofiction” to the “contemporary.” This dominant understanding of the environment in antebellum American literature is epitomized by the romanticism of Emerson’s Nature (1836). As a newlywed, Hawthorne resided in the Old Manse, where Emerson wrote Nature, a fact memorialized in Hawthorne’s introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse: “It was here that Emerson wrote ‘Nature.’” Thoreau planted a vegetable garden at the Old Manse as a wedding gift. Yet Hawthorne remained skeptical of Emerson’s “subtile influence,” and it was as a resident of the Manse that Hawthorne wrote some of his most forceful gothic ripostes to transcendental views of nature: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844) and “The Birth-mark” (1843). In this chapter, I contextualize Hawthorne’s ecogothic with the work of his contemporaries, including Cooper, Thoreau, Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827), and Child’s Hobomok (1824). The chapter then explores Hawthorne’s particular post-human/nonhuman territories of American literary history. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” importantly features the gothic transgression of the boundaries of both human and nonhuman in a landscape in which “every portion of the soil was peopled with plants” (emphasis mine), a treacherous environment of “poisonous flowers.” With attention to the “Frontier Gothic” (Mogen) and “ecophobia” (Hilliard), and with reference to “Zombie Ecology” (Newbury), Hawthorne’s ecogothic is revealed.