American Gothic Tales

After reading Joyce Carol Oates incredible compilation of Gothic tales by American authors, we will break down and examine the meaning held within these stories. The tales in this collection use the dark, the mysterious, the macabre as metaphor for the most frightening thing of all: the human experience.

Manufactured Destiny

Source Taken from Library of Congress

The First Thanksgiving (1621) is an oil painting by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It is a one of a collection of paintings titled ‘The Pageant of a Nation.’ Published in 1932, Pageant of a Nation is a collection presenting romanticized depictions of significant moments of American history. This painting represents what the artist would like its audience to view as the first Thanksgiving: a harmonious coming together of Indigenous Peoples and White Europeans.

Source Taken from Library of Congress

This image is also part of the collection by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It is titled The Landing of William Pen (1682.) It depicts William Penn, founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, arriving on the shores of the New World to be greeted by its current inhabitants. Take note that the Native Peoples depicted in this painting are wearing traditional clothing of Great Plains tribes. Is Pennsylvania near the Great Plains?

Student Questions

  1. What details do you notice in these paintings and what is the story they tell? How are the white people conveyed? The Native people?
  2. What does this story tell us about the American national identity and self image?
  3. What ideas about our national identity do the paintings reinforce?
  4. Bonus question! What does the name for the collection, Pageantry of a Nation, resemble? Why might this be significant?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers

Students will be able to examine paintings critically, determining the accuracy of historical representation. Students will be able to identify symbols within the paintings that provide insight towards the American self identity at the time of these paintings. Think critically about how these values continue to be presented in American culture.

  1. The most notable thing about the first painting is the position of the characters within. The Native people are seated at the feet of the white settlers, who are providing them with food. The Native people are positioned at the same level as the dog and the child in the foreground. The food, setting, and clothing in both pictures are historically inaccurate, presenting European foods and structures as opposed to those that would have actually been there.
  2. These paintings are the ultimate representation of American Imperialism. The White people in the photos are ‘saving’ the Native peoples, who are positioned below them, implying that they are closer to the status of a dog than of the white individuals. The Natives are depicted as thankful for the kindness of these settlers. This romanticization of American settlers as ‘helping’ is the same propaganda used throughout history to justify the subjugation of non-white peoples.
  3. Americans saw themselves as heroes. They came to a savage land to rescue it. Instead they decimated its native population. By reimagining the impact of settlers, American Identity can remain one that is pure and beautiful. It can be imagined as a peaceful and joyous time, reinforcing the notions of American superiority.

It’s been 99 years, Pandemics still aren’t fun.

Spanish Flu Poster. (1918) Source.
The Flu is known to have Originated in Kansas. Why has it been called the ‘Spanish Flu’?
Now this looks familiar. Cheesecloth may not have been as effective as the masks we wear in 2021, but they were just as crucial. In what ways are masks, then and now, significant? (Think medically AND culturally.)
Some Rules and Regulations from 1918 on how to stay safe during a pandemic. Notice the singular gender pronoun used in the last sentence.
Theater in 1918 compared with Theater in 2020

Possible Questions Raised by Comparison:

  1. What are some similarities in the way Americans responded to the Pandemics of 1918, and 2020?
  2. How quickly did public places reopen after the 1918 pandemic?
  3. What did the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic look like?
  4. What can we learn from the societal response to the 1918 pandemic?
Physicians vaccinating each other. (1919). Source.
This photograph depicts doctors wearing masks as they receive their vaccine. What is the message this photo is sending to the public?
This doctor looks directly at the camera as he applies the shot. During the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic, there were anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, just as there are during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Note the race and gender of each doctor.

History Alive.

I remember very little from my high school history courses. I remember heavy textbooks, and dry lectures. I remember the exhaustion of memorizing names and dates, without the reward of retaining them. The most important thing I learned from those classes was what NOT to do.

I was lucky enough to have gone to a history magnet middle school, and the excitement and curiosity instilled in me there kept me afloat during the arduous sessions of high school classes. Once one discovers the magic and power of history, the light never goes out.

My middle school experience was powerful and successful because it focused on absolute historical immersion. We worked in teams, and each team would represent a certain group of individuals at a time. For example, during the unit on Ancient Greece, the teams were Greek City States; ‘Athens,’ ‘Sparta,’ ‘Delphi,’ ‘Corinth,’ etc. Each team would explore real historical figures from their City State and adopt this person as their identity for the unit. We would hold mock gatherings, listen to music of the period, study art, read literature. Even our other subjects revolved around whatever unit we were studying. I’ll once again use Greece as an example. We studied math and science with Pythagorus, Archimedes, and Aristotle. We read Homer and Herodotus. We performed plays (the un-explicit versions, of course) of Sophocles and Euripides.

Our entire class would journey to the past for the unit (we had three each year, changing teams with each unit) and become part of whatever world we were learning about. Every moment was an adventure on our personal ‘Magic School Bus.’ It really was as if history were coming alive.

We students had the structure of a time and place, and the total freedom to explore it. This autonomy allowed us to deep dive into subjects that interested us personally, while still sticking to curriculum. We were given primary, secondary, and tertiary resources, but we were also taught to discover our own- developing and exploring our opinions. I find this balance of structure and autonomy key in my learning experience. By bringing people, places, and events to life, I was able to connect to them and care about them. I remember more from my middle school days than my high school days because in the former, history became real. It held weight and context. History was real, tangible, and therefor, significant and fascinating. Where high school was rule and blind information, middle school was guidance and discovery.

I fully intend to bring these techniques of immersion into my classroom, and truly make history alive.

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash