American Gothic: Part I
Gabriel Rossetti was a poet and a painter. Perhaps surprisingly, his work (as well as that of his Pre-Raphaelite ‘Brothers’) was inspired by contemporary American writing. When the young Pre-Raphaelite Brothers drew up their mock-serious list of the greatest artists of all time, Americans writers were included: Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But the Rossettis’ appreciation of American writing had its roots in childhood. When Maria, Gabriel, William and Christina were children, they resisted their religious mother’s best efforts to push them towards the early Victorian era’s tiresome morality tales such as the despised Fairchild Family series, with its shiny-faced children eager to pitch in with the family chores. In fact, the young Rossettis went the other way entirely when they discovered an illustrated collection of horror stories called Legends of Terror in their uncle’s library. These ghoulish delights, entitled things like ‘The Legend of the Bloody Hand’ ‘A Night in the Grave’, ‘The Maniac’s Fate’, were entertaining and frightening in equal measure, and helped inspire Gabriel and Christina’s gothic imaginations
It was here they came across American writing for the first time in Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’, which Legends of Terror took care to specify was ‘An American Legend’. The urban children thrilled to the alien wilderness of New York’s Catskill mountains, where Rip Van Winkle seeks sanctuary from his nagging wife. He is tempted by the gnome-like ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew to join them for bowling and beer and is drugged into a 20 year-long sleep. Is it too fanciful to suggest parallels between this ‘Legend of Terror’ and Christina Rossetti’s own ‘Goblin Market’, where a girl in flight from her domestic chores meets goblin merchants who sell her drugged fruit? Gabriel and William’s early enthusiasm for American writing, particularly of the ghoulish variety, probably has its roots in ‘Rip Van Winkle’.