Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic

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Once we've terrified ourselves reading Anne Rice or Stephen King, watching Halloween or following the O. J. Simpson trial, we can rely on the comfort of our inner child or Robert Bly's bongos, an angel, or even a crystal. In a brilliant assessment of American culture on the eve of the millennium, Mark Edmundson asks why we're determined to be haunted, courting the Gothic at every turn?and, at the same time, committed to escape through any new scheme for ready-made transcendence....

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Overview

Once we've terrified ourselves reading Anne Rice or Stephen King, watching Halloween or following the O. J. Simpson trial, we can rely on the comfort of our inner child or Robert Bly's bongos, an angel, or even a crystal. In a brilliant assessment of American culture on the eve of the millennium, Mark Edmundson asks why we're determined to be haunted, courting the Gothic at every turn—and, at the same time, committed to escape through any new scheme for ready-made transcendence.

Nightmare on Main Street depicts a culture suffused with the Gothic, not just in novels and films but even in the nonfictive realms of politics and academic theories, TV news and talk shows, various therapies, and discourses on AIDS and the environment. Gothic's first wave, in the 1790s, reflected the truly terrifying events unfolding in revolutionary France. What, Edmundson asks, does the ascendancy of the Gothic in the 1990s tell us about our own day?

And what of another trend, seemingly unrelated—the widespread belief that re-creating oneself is as easy as making a wish? Looking at the world according to Forrest Gump, Edmundson shows how this parallel culture actually works reciprocally with the Gothic.

An unchecked fixation on the Gothic, Edmundson argues, would result in a culture of sadomasochism. Against such a rancorous and dispiriting possibility, he draws on the work of Nietzsche and Shelley, and on the recent creations of Toni Morrison and Tony Kushner, to show how the Gothic and the visionary can come together in persuasive and renovating ways.

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Editorial Reviews

Boyd Tonkin
According to some critics, most of today's popular culture can fall under the enveloping shroud of a "Gothic" rubri. For a witty, lucid but fanciful essay in this vein [read] Nightmare on Main Street...This is fascinating, smartly-written stuff.
The Independent
Kirkus Reviews
What do Richard Nixon, Freddy Krueger, O.J. Simpson, and Edgar Allan Poe have in common with one another—but not with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ralph Waldo Emerson? Answer: The former express our nation's cult of gothic guilt and fear; the latter are potential models of redemption.

Edmundson (English/Univ. of Virginia) argues that the gothic mindset, exemplified in lurid classics of the late 18th century (e.g., Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Lewis's The Monk) dominates contemporary American culture. From these works he distills categories that he finds ubiquitous in modern pop culture, including protagonists equally divided between good and wicked selves, scenarios in which dungeons or other underground scenes of sadomasochistic horror figure prominently, the hidden past that refuses to die (in recovered-memory syndrome), and so forth. Racism is, above all else, the part of the American past that refuses to die, haunting us in fiction (Toni Morrison's Beloved), in the news (O.J.), and in cinema. Edmundson has written an entertaining and thoughtful book, but his overly elastic thesis occasionally gets the better of his good judgment. He is prone to write outlandish things, making his book at times a lurid bit of American gothic itself. His arguments often fall into the categories he criticizes: Poe, for example, is Emerson's evil twin in the American tradition (his America seems divided between angels and incubi). Though he justifiably scorns the recent angel craze as an expression of phony transcendence, he also presents Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, and even Nietzsche as angels of a sort (he calls them "visionaries") who might deliver us from our abject need. One might say that this book's thesis belongs in the American tradition of cultural pessimism, the very malady for which it purports to be the cure.

Even though Edmundson's main thesis is overdrawn, his book is rewarding. It has many startling insights, shrewd observations, and considerable narrative momentum.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674874848
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1997
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.61 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Edmundson is Professor of English at the University of Virginia. His books include Literature against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida; and Wild Orchids and Trotsky.

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Table of Contents

Preface

American Gothic

The World According to Forrest Gump

S & M Culture

Notes

Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2002

    Something to consider- or, Rather, who to insult...

    Not a question or review per se, but it is important to note that being 'gothic,' as the term is so used, has indeed nothing to do with the extracurricular activities of BDSM. And being a member of either communities a reader might find it easy to be offended as being categorized as the other. It did not seem intelligent to stereotype the two together since one, in fact, has no influence on the other; sexual preferences are not determined because you wear a suit to work, just as clothing need not be decided by your type of sexual practices.

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