chapter  8
13 Pages

Ghoulish Hinterlands

Ecogothic Confrontations in American Slave Narratives
WithJericho Williams

Slave narrators, amanuenses, and antislavery activists all found the traditional gothic mode useful in conveying the corporeal and psychological horrors of enslavement, but their writings also convey how the threat of ecogothic encounters within the natural world conspired to maintain the system of slavery. Outdoor areas at the peripheries of plantations, such as swamps, woods, and unpopulated tracts of land, embodied zones of intimidation for slaves seeking viable ways to escape. Fears of potential confrontations with nature’s terrors loom repeatedly throughout slave narratives, offering clarity not only about the vast controlled system of slavery but also about the challenges of establishing routes to safety. Three ecogothic plant and animal terrors recur throughout slave narratives. The claustrophobic density of the non-cultivated land presented the first obstacle because it was sometimes difficult to navigate. Often paralyzed by the fear of detection by hunting parties and the potential for geographical disorientation, slaves struggled to subsist on what food and shelter they could find. Hunting dogs became a second major concern because, as John Thompson notes, the dogs were seemingly “as anxious as their masters [to track slaves].” Finally, slaves worried about encounters with wilder creatures, such as bears, panthers, and snakes. The possibility of animal terrors, along with the potential for sickness or starvation, often combined to facilitate a real-life, outdoors-minded form of dread that characterizes canonical gothic works. Consequently, slave narratives suggest two ideas regarding the American ecogothic. First, for many, the natural world in the nineteenth century appeared far more personally threatening than some transcendentalists or naturalists might have readers believe; second, even if more thorough knowledge of the natural world could not completely eradicate ecogothic fears, it could provide hope for navigating a successful escape from slavery, possibly the greatest source of nineteenth-century American terror.