Rethinking Gothic Literature and the Literary Canon through The Black Vampyre

Rochelle Raineri Zuck
Associate Professor of English
Iowa State University

I included this year’s Just Teach One offering, Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s The Black Vampyre (1819), on the syllabus for my 200-level survey of American literature to 1865 this fall.  It was my first semester teaching at a new university, and I was learning the rhythms of a new institution and the needs and interests of a new audience. I found it very productive to have a text that the students and I were both reading basically for the first time because it contributed to the sense of the course as a shared project.  In what follows, I will briefly survey how I incorporated this text into the reading list, the writing assignment that I designed to allow the students to put this text in dialog with others from the course, and what kinds of conversations this text fostered, both in class discussions and in students’ written work.

This survey course was arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, and students read The Black Vampyre after Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and before a pair of excerpts from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and David Walker’s Appeal.  As I was planning the course, I also imagined that students might find connections between The Black Vampyre and several other works on the syllabus,including Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and excerpts from Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

For their second written assignment, students were asked to compare and contrast The Black Vampyre with one of the other texts listed on our syllabus and consider the place of this text in the canon of early American literature.  The goals of this assignment were for students to demonstrate their understanding of course materials; to hone their close reading and analytical writing skills by crafting a comparative argument involving two texts; and to consider issues of canon formation and what constitutes “American literature.”  

In their written work and class discussions, students highlighted the gothic features of The Black Vampyre including the work’s foreboding and isolated settings (Caribbean plantation, cemetery, subterranean passage), the violence and gore associated with slavery and with vampirism, the figure of Euphemia who acts as a kind of damsel in distress, and the vampires themselves.  We talked about how a number of works of American literature, including those by Douglass, Jacobs, Melville and Stowe, drew on gothic elements to communicate something of the horrors of slavery and substituted the isolated plantation house for the gothic castles often featured in gothic works set in Europe and the United Kingdom.  Discussing The Black Vampyre alongside Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was particularly fruitful, with students contrasting what they saw as a “classic” example of gothic literature with an earlier text that blended familiar gothic elements with questions of race, slavery, and economics in the Atlantic world, as well as violence that at times seemed almost comic or surreal.

Some also drew attention to how the representations of black masculinity in The Black Vampyre compared with those of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and Melville’s Benito Cereno.  They noted how unusual it seemed for a text of the era to celebrate the physical beauty and sexual attractiveness of an African or African American man as seen through the eyes of a white woman. Yet, several students also pointed to the ways in which the text employs racial stereotypes and does not challenge the practice of chattel slavery as forcefully as other nineteenth-century works like Walker’s Appeal or Douglass’s Narrative.

A final point students made was that this text paired well with Benito Cereno in that both represented enslaved people rising up against their oppressors, yet both texts end with a reinscription of slave power and a “return” of sorts to the status quo.

Students were asked in the conclusions of their comparative essays to take up the following question: based on the comparative work you have done, should The Black Vampyre be included in a survey course on early American literature.  They were then asked to explain their answer.  I found this to be one of the most productive parts of the conversation because it prompted students to think about what the goals of such a course are (or should be), what constitutes “American literature” and who gets to decide its parameters, and what a neglected text such as The Black Vampyre has to offer us that a more familiar text like those mentioned above cannot.  One of the most interesting facets of the debate came down to the question of literary quality.  Several students proposed that this text should not be included because The Black Vampyre was not as well crafted or widely read as some others on our syllabus and thus should not be included in a course in which students could only read a relatively small selection. Others seemed to appreciate the fact that this text was an early example of American Gothicism, written at a time in which some of the generic conventions were not as fully developed and there was more experimentation.  Finally, after reading a number of carefully crafted poems, sermons, and political tracts in the early weeks of the semester, some students suggested that a text like this was valuable because it was a window into what nineteenth-century Americans might have read (and written) for fun.

As for my own assessment of the text, I would definitely return to it if I was teaching a class on gothic literature and might consider using it again for the survey, in part because it pairs well with a variety of canonical texts and dates from a period—the opening decades of the nineteenth century—that is often somewhat underrepresented in literature surveys.