97 Food and Sustenance in Early Gothic American Literature

Rose Paulin

NOTE: For the purpose of this blog post, the supernatural creatures who can be identified in the story as seemingly immortal, human-eating, power-wielding beings, who can only be killed with a stake (not specifically wooden) through the heart or via a “magical cure” of some kind (D’Arcy, 35) (as though vampirism were an illness), will be called “vampyres”, as in the text. A “vampire” is a different creature to whom these rules do not necessarily apply, if they existed, but they are not this.
“…her husband had been made a holocaust, and served up like a broiled and peppered chicken, to feed the grim maw of death, and her interesting infant, the first pledge of her pure and perfect love, had been precociously sucked, like an unripe orange, and nothing left but its beautiful and tender skin.” (D’Arcy, 19)
This passage describes human corpses using strangely specific food-related words to invoke images of consumption and the appetite. While it could very well be an allusion to Mr. Personne and son’s future states of being turned into vampyres – and holding these kinds of food-comparative images to humans themselves – the passage could also allude to the way in which the Prince saw them when taking their lives; as meals, possibly to be treasured. The father was compared to a dinner for the Prince (here referred to as “the grim maw of death”), equated to a “broiled chicken” (the beginning of his appetite for murder), and Personne’s infant son was equated an “unripe orange”, that was consumed as a kind of dessert to completely satisfy the Prince’s hunger. This reading adds connotations to the text previously undiscovered, such as the author’s views on hunger and sustenance; all creatures must have sustenance in order to survive, so listing off a vampyre’s “meal” in a way humans can understand could be a way of getting the reader to empathise with the Prince.
“…as the keen edge of [Mrs. and Mr. Personne’s] hunger had been whetted by delay, they would fain have taken supper, and digested a little something wherewithal to strengthen them, before they set out. Zembo, who had filled his own breadbasket very lately, and was in no such urgent necessity, protested…against the unseasonable gratification of their unnatural craving; and recited…an extract from Counsellor Phillips’s [sic] harangue, about “the cannibal appetite of his rejected altar,” which his parents did not understand, and of course thought very sublime! …[T]hey licked their lips – cast a longing, lingering look at the grave-yard, – and followed [Zembo] without more opposition.” (D’Arcy, 30-31)
This passage talks about the hypocrisy of Zembo when it comes to cannibalism, or sating of the “unnatural craving” of Mrs. and Mr. Personne’s recent vampyrism. The pair are willing to give up a meal that would give them strength when warned against it using religion, and are made to press onwards towards a cure, driven by their hunger. The deeper meaning this holds involves the idea that the story was driven forward by hunger: the idea that food, or the promise of sustenance, is strong enough to lead to a conclusion of a tale. There is also a large avoidance of describing said meal while still in the graveyard, something not hesitated on prior. This could be due to the particular setting, in which the only sustenance available to Mrs. and Mr. Personne would be rotting corpses – something not easily translatable into the “language of the living”; that is to say, it would be difficult to get a reader to sympathize with the plight of the protagonists when the best comparison to the meal they’re devouring is accompanied by such words as “rank”, “rancid”, and “rotten”. Avoiding these descriptions, as well as the physical act of having the protagonists cannibalize, could very well be in an attempt to increase sympathies with not only the protagonists themselves, but with vampyres as a whole.
How does your analysis of this keyword complicate, affirm, enhance, OR diverge from previous conversations that we’ve had with respect to American literature?
Food and sustenance can easily be viewed through the lens of personhood – when we talk about a creature’s eating habits in writing, it’s a way to get closer to the creature, to grant it a lens that a lot of people take for granted – consumption being equivalent in all organic life. When gathering sustenance, creatures become more human to readers, and we become more able to grant them personhood (the state of being recognized as “a person”). This affirms past writings that evoke personhood, though they may do so using other means, as being a part of American literature. Discussing the eating habits of the vampyres brings them one step closer to being understood by readers as “bridging the gap between man and monster,” or between humanity and Obeah, in this case, and granting that in-between a status of possible personhood.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Rose Paulin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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