Haunting of American literature unearthed in new book

Everyone loves ghosts, says the chair of York’s Department of English, Arthur Redding, with a grin.

Their popularity is evident. American literature is full of them, which is what piqued his curiosity in the first place. “I just kept coming across ghosts,” says Redding, author of the recently published book Haints: American Ghosts, Millennial Passions, and Contemporary Gothic Fictions.

He first noticed the abundance of supernatural beings in American literature while he was teaching in Central Europe in the 1990s. Redding and his students were struck by how often ghosts Haints Book Coverappeared in the stories they were studying. But the question for Redding was: why were so many ghosts popping up in New World writing? The question has haunted him for over a decade. Only now, in Haints – a southerner’s word for ghosts, apparitions and spirits – in which Redding explores America’s relationship with ghosts and what that means for a new country, can he lay it to rest.

“From the beginning, American writing has always been gothic,” says Redding, who teaches the fourth-year course, Contemporary American Gothic. But the United States, unlike Europe, lacks ancient ruins and historical buildings ripe for the haunting. So where would ghosts come from? Redding has a few theories.

“Ghosts are representatives of a history that is largely unrecognized in the United States,” he says. Toni Morrison, author of Beloved, talks about how the past is always absent or repressed. “So in novels like Beloved the ghost becomes this figure for the claims that an unrecognized past make on the present.”

America has an unresolved history of violence, including institutionalized slavery and the dispossession of Aboriginals, which creates a perfect context for haunting. Redding tells of teaching his students about the 1921 Tulsa race riot in America when a black man was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. The whites were deputized and charged into the black community of Greenwood, burning houses and businesses. Bombs were dropped from private planes onto black neighbourhoods. Yet, if you try to find a detailed record of this, the largest race riot in American history, says Redding, there is a black hole. The event has been largely erased. It is in that denial of violence and justice that ghosts are born. “American’s are singularly resistant to recognizing our historical debt. The ghosts are that black hole – that unrecognized past.”

Arthur ReddingLeft: Arthur Redding

In Haints Redding writes: “The debts to our past are not only homage we owe to our ancestors, but also the heavy, heavy burdens of alternative pasts, potential presents, and unimagined futures, alternatives that have never fully manifested themselves in the stream of earthly experience.”

Unresolved trauma is another area Redding examines as an avenue for creating spectres.

He does this by exploring mostly contemporary American fiction, such as the work of Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen and Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child, and horror films. He exposes how ghosts are used to reconcile the histories of denied violence and America’s proclaimed innocence.

The book is a departure for Redding, whose previous work includes Turncoats, Traitors and Fellow Travelers: Culture and Politics of the Early Cold War and Raids on Human Consciousness: Writing, Anarchism and Violence. But, it was a subject that wouldn’t let him alone until he’d finally dealt with it, which begs the question: does he believe in ghosts? It’s a question Redding sidesteps by saying: “I suppose I take a pragmatist’s approach to that. People who do real historical research find ghosts…so clearly ghosts have an effect on the world, so in that way they exist. They are a cultural invention we seem to need.”

It seems everyone around him has a ghost story to tell, including his sister who, at one time, managed a cemetery in Washington. She told Redding she would see faces in the windows of the cemetery buildings beckoning her. Most of his friends have also divulged stories of the unexplained, one of which lived in a house where the furniture in the attic was constantly being moved about, but no one was there.

“People seem to love such stories and feel a need to narrate their own ghostly encounters,” says Redding. Although Redding has never had a first-hand encounter with a ghost, he now has his own story to tell.

An official launch of Haints: American Ghosts, Millennial Passions, and Contemporary Gothic Fictions (University of Alabama Press) is expected in October at York.

For more information about Haints, visit the University of Alabama Press website.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer