What is American Grotesk Historytelling?

‘American Grotesk’ is not a pejorative term, but used in an older, traditional sense in that it embraces true stories of absurd incongruity, flawed characters, farfetched bizarreness and a marked departure from the expected or typical, told in a journalism-inspired, creative nonfiction manner.

Bringing the dead back to live with galvanism, 1830

Roots in Southern Gothic

Characteristics of Southern Gothic literature as practiced by Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Falkner, Cormac McCarthy, Joe Lansdale and writers-of-color as Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and others, include the presence of sometimes irrational, horrific and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses. They often include grotesque characters, dark humor, and an overall sense of dread and alienation. Southern Gothic is uniquely rooted in the South’s aberrations and its distinctiveness from the rest of the country that has been brought about by historical, geographical, sociological, climatological and economic factors. American writers may not have had ancient crumbling European castles in which they could place their Gothic romances, but after the Civil War, the decaying plantations of the South became prime locations for Gothic stories about sins, secrets, and its “haunting history.”

This is “Southern Gothic.” And while “Southern Grotesque” — coined and practiced brilliantly by Flannery O’Connor, as well as others — is considered a literary sub-genre of Southern Gothic, American Grotesk is a more broad but personalized variation (as well as a genre I am still no doubt perfecting).

Literary scholars agree that Grotesque literature bites deeper into perceived normalcy. In a broader American non-fiction existence, it is revealed by a countercultural propensity to disrupt a status quo with often outlying or even bizarre experiences of sexuality, gender, race, women’s rights and criminal justice — sometimes transpiring in a decaying or even artificial environment, with characters fighting a mostly lost cause that reverberates throughout a history and culture in ways we sometimes cannot imagine.

Flannery O’Connor pointed out that grotesque literature, as practiced by her, indicated a certain southern realism by saying:

In these grotesque works … We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected … that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine.

Not a freak show

The Oxford Research dictionary says that “Rather than a sensationalist freak or horror show, grotesque literature cuts through the veil of civility, through decorum and oppressive normative fabrications to expose a harsh, confusing reality of contradictions, violence, and aberrations.”

I selected the term and the spelling American Grotesk for two reasons. One was to set the term apart as not purely descriptive but to be more visually iconic. The term is also not intended to be used in a pejorative manner, but in the older, traditional sense in that it embraces true (not always fictional) stories of absurd incongruity and farfetched bizarreness, in a marked departure from the expected, told in a journalism-inspired, creative nonfiction manner.

American Grotesk is “historytelling” that presents a variety of uniquely strange and seemingly incompatible American events, traditions and practices that are in themselves historically accurate and often include the literary traditions of the earlier and more familiar Southern version of the genre. American Grotesk describes not just crumbling plantations, but real-life characters of the time, either deeply flawed or suffering from physical, mental or cultural frailties that are thrust upon them from an outside and frequently unseen force. While subsisting in those environments, and propelled into impossible circumstances, these characters are forced to devise strategies to either claw their way out or most likely, die trying (see Cheapened and neutralized: why the FBI Destroyed Actress Jean Seberg’s life).


American Grotesk historytelling existed in various forms in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see my story Three Colonial Virginia Hurricanes) but blossomed after the Civil War, through reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, the KKK, civil rights and segregation. There is literally no era in history when the American Grotesk tradition did not express or set itself apart with a dislocating juxtaposition of elements that conflicted with the restorative nostalgic sensibilities of the rest of society. The genre encompasses a series of historical contraventions that challenges the American (white) status quo, in a sometimes bizarre attempt to explain the unexplainable, and link threads once considered unlinkable (see Frankenstein and the Three Spaniards, Murder among the Earthquakes and The African Dodger).

African Dodger game at an American carnival, 1930s

“The South,” Larry Finger wrote in his 1972 dissertation “Elements of the Grotesque in Selected Works of Welty, Capote, McCullers, and O’Connor,” “unlike other parts of the country, has known what it means to suffer great defeat; consequently, the Southerner has a great sense of the complexities of human existence. Such complexities no doubt are reflected in the literature of the grotesque.”

As suggested previously, the “reveal” of American Grotesk is the attempt to historically connect threads not previously connected; to analyze and explain the background of American historical life and culture and the oftentimes fantastic origins of the genre never before contemplated (see An American Nosferatu). This real-life, creative nonfiction genre is less prevalent historically than the themes of the fictional classics, so this could be a unique investigation of those comparative origins; a distinctive examination at what these cultures and practices accomplished throughout the previous two centuries, and where their legacies are leading our American culture into the 21st century (see Seven Black Men, Seven Death Penalties and Ghost Flight).

American Grotesk has become an extension of Cultural Archaeology, my original aesthetic and driving attempt to differentiate and rename myself and my methods from the more familiar old Richmond historian moniker. And the genre is not confined to just horrific, governmental or Jim Crow-era monstrosities. See my story of triumph and tragedy, The Strange, Sad Odyssey of Lawn Chair Larry.


Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net. My ninth book, Naked Savages, is now available worldwide.

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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