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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Other connections between the tale of Mehitable and that of Sarah are not evident from the published texts alone, which prompts me to conclude that the Globe author interviewed residents of Exeter, just as he implied at various points in his narrative. I wonder if he heard oral versions of the narrative that Rider had published. My research of Rider’s tale led me to Tillinghast as Sarah’s surname and to the western slope of Pine Hill as the location of both the family’s residence and their cemetery. I also learned that Sarah died in 1799, a date that better corresponds to the “100 years earlier” of the 1896 Globe narrative than “near the beginning of the Revolution” that Rider cites. Still, the question remains: Did the Globe author hear this tale from residents of Exeter, then change the names of its characters and embellish their roles?

Whatever their ultimate grounding in history, it is plain that the tales of Mehitable and Godlove Arnold are parodies, and it is possible that they reveal more than the anonymous author intended or even, perhaps, understood. The powerful pull of the Old World vampire was based not just on its lengthy and romantic pedigree but also its visual presence. South County’s tradition (shared throughout New England) could not provide the corporeal revenant overtly feeding on blood. If the local folklore seemed too tepid for a sustainable narrative in the context of popular print media, authors of fiction could turn to a folk tradition that not only was (and is) more widely known and accepted, but—and here’s the crucial element—also provided a richer palette for portrayal. (The Globe article appeared a scant year before this palette was fully realized by Bram Stoker in Dracula.) The literary vampire tradition, fashioned from strands of European folklore and history, became the generally accepted canon of vampirism. Selecting from a flowing stream of oral tradition, authors preserved the enticing motifs like miniatures frozen in glass, suspended without time or place.

Folklorist Richard M. Dorson refers to fictional folksy narratives, such as those that appear in “Believe in Vampires,” as “subliterature,” as though they do not quite measure up to real literature. In “The Identification of Folklore in American Literature,” [JAF 1957:5] Dorson argued, “The dark and somber theme of supernatural legends merits as much attention as the current of humorous exaggeration in our literary and subliterary history.” The Globe article, while not unique in combining the supernatural with the humorous, does stand out in that regard. Such humorous pieces were common fare in nineteenth-century popular periodicals, though most were typically shorter anecdotes, either sprinkled throughout a newspaper’s pages or, more often, grouped under a column of similar strange but humorous incidents. The humor arises from caricature (burlesque) of the of the rustic country or backwoods bumpkin. To have the broad appeal necessary for a successful newspaper narrative, the stereotypes on display had to be accessible to the general reader. The criteria that shape historical facts to fit a predetermined mold hold for both yokel and vampire. Since the “joke” is shared implicitly by the reader—at least that is the underlying assumption of the writer—there is no need to label the narrative as satire and not news. Newspaper readers, unlike scholars, were not too concerned with sorting out history from hokum.

2 Comment(s):
Michael Bell said...
A tough job that someone has to do!
February 17, 2015 08:37:22
William D Romanski said...
It's a good thing that scholars can extract the history from the hokum. WDR
February 16, 2015 03:54:08
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