The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates
The hothouse atmosphere of Princeton proves a perfect setting for real-life historical figures to get some gothic surprises
Joyce Carol Oates
If, as the American philosopher William James observes, “the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom” makes “a work of art romantic”, surely romance raised to fever pitch makes a work of art gothic.
In a gothic novel the ordinary (our human yearnings, impulses and maladies) is expressed through the extraordinary (haunted houses, demon bridegrooms and the like). And through the uncanny: that which is eerily, strangely familiar – although the premise of this novel, that an American college town should be full of devils and snakes, might strike some as being merely familiar.
Joyce Carol Oates is renowned as a chronicler of working-class lives, but in this enormous novel her cool eye examines, with some lively exceptions, the US elite. The Accursed takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the placid university town of Princeton, New Jersey, where, in time-honoured gothic tradition, its narrator, the historian MW van Dyck II, has had access to secret materials: journals, letters and diaries.
It is one of Oates’s considerable achievements that while van Dyck’s attitudes are ponderous and self-important (his former home has been taken over “by strangers with a name ending in -stein”), the narrative itself flows fairly effortlessly.
Such artistic sleight of hand, and the fact that much of The Accursed is slyly hilarious, are but two of the literary surprises the book holds in store.
Josiah Slade, one of the more likeable characters, observes that Princeton is “a claustrophobic world of privilege and anxiety in which one was made to care too much about too little”. Certainly, its hothouse atmosphere makes it a perfect gothic setting. In 1905, when our story begins, Princeton’s president is none other than that pallid paragon of Protestant probity Woodrow Wilson, the future US president famous for his inane promise that the Great War would be “the war to end all wars”.
The Woodrow Wilson we meet in the opening pages of The Accursed is crabbed, self-righteous, grandiose and hypochondriacal. But most dangerously he is subtly but surely a racist, introducing the novel’s prevailing theme: the horror in this horror story is the US itself, in its inward- looking complacency, its sense of itself as a nation set apart and its history of misogyny and racism.
We also meet Upton Sinclair, passionate socialist and author of The Jungle: “He had spent two months in Packingtown, in Chicago, living among the slaughterhouse workers . . . In such places, the hellishness of the class struggle is evident to the naked eye, while here in gilded Princeton you must delve beneath surfaces, to see with an ‘uncanny’ eye.”
Sinclair may cherish high ideals about fairness and equality, but he works on his new book in contemplative solitude while his wife milks the cow, looks after the chickens and the orchard and takes care of their newborn baby.
“Upton sympathised with Meta’s frustration . . . but he did not condone her frequently voiced despair – if they were to one day help found a Socialist colony it would be in a rural environment, and so the present farm work was excellent training.”
Yet is that his Meta he glimpses, walking through Princeton in a frock he does not recognise, in the company of a strange man? And later, in the fields beyond their farmhouse, making love to another stranger?