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The Vanishing South: Race and the Ecogothic in Ambrose Bierce and Charles Chesnutt

Corstorphine, Kevin



Ambrose Bierce’s short stories present Gothic visions of the colonial encounter with the American wilderness in a way that complicates notions of land ownership and the relationship of humans to the environment. In ‘The Damned Thing’ (1893), a seemingly invisible creature that may or may not be a mountain lion mauls a man to death. Bierce’s narrative contains remarkable speculation into contemporary ideas on optics, noting that there are ‘colors we cannot see.’ Nature is portrayed as something that becomes stranger and more uncanny the more we discover about it. Perhaps most enigmatically of all, the very short story ‘The Difficulty of Crossing a Field’ (1888) tells a tall tale about a plantation owner who goes for a short walk and simply disappears. The Gothic’s knack for revealing social anxieties is in full force here with the implications of the story for the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of the land, and looks ahead to the mythic portrayal of a vanished antebellum age. In this vein Bierce’s work will be compared to that of his African American contemporary Charles Chestnutt, specifically his collection The Conjure Woman (1899), where the formerly enslaved Uncle Julius tells supernatural stories to credulous white Northerners for his own purposes. In ‘The Goophered Grapevine’, for example, he warns of a cursed vine growing on a former plantation, attempting to scare them away from what has become his own personal resource. Building on Jeffrey Myers’s ecocritical reading of Chestnutt, as well as broader critical attention to the racialization of the natural vs urban environment, this article will argue that African American history, in particular, complicates and illuminates the ecogothic mode and is crucial to how we might continue to construct such a critical method.


Corstorphine, K. (in press). The Vanishing South: Race and the Ecogothic in Ambrose Bierce and Charles Chesnutt. Studies in American Fiction, 49( Special Issue on the Ecogothic),

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Nov 11, 2022
Deposit Date Nov 23, 2022
Journal Studies in American Fiction
Print ISSN 0091-8083
Publisher Johns Hopkins University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 49
Issue Special Issue on the Ecogothic
Series ISSN 2158-5806
Keywords Ecocriticism, American Literature, Ecogothic, Gothic fiction, Chesnutt, Bierce
Public URL
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