Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Countdown to Halloween: War Wounds

Today, a Halloween story from Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine in 1870, in which the emerging holiday touches upon the trauma of the Civil War and the project of reunion.

Yes, Helen Elliott's "Hallowe'en" is a story that tells us a lot about the moment of its construction. Readers with good memories may immediately note that this story adds weight to last year's assertion that the Gilded Age saw a renewed interest in the idea of Halloween and its associated folk customs. Compellingly, too, it gives a very clear provenance for the festivities on display in this story: the family at the heart of this story, the Barlowes, are immigrants from England who, after spells in India and Nova Scotia, end up "in a large town on the banks of the beautiful Ohio River." And there's one particular enthusiasm that they bring with them, linking us directly back to the Old World at this time of year:

At their Halloween party, the kind of love spells and games that characterised Halloween throughout much of the nineteenth century are much on display - and, indeed, are engineered to bring about the betrothal of heroine Nell and her sweetheart, Ned. But where most romantic Halloween stories ends, this one begins. For Ned has already volunteered to fight for the Union, and soon after their wedding he leaves for the war.

Before long, Nell's worst hopes are realised, and Ned is reported wounded. She travels to Tennessee in an attempt to find her "suffering husband", only to be told that Ned has already been buried in a mass grave. It's at this moment of sectional violence - a moment that must have resonated with many of Godey's readers - that the spirit of reunion is clearly evident in Elliott's story. Here's her description of the "Southern woman" whose farm was the site of the skirmish in which Ned was injured:

Neither is that the end of story. Nell returns home and begins wasting away through grief - until another Halloween rolls around, and the love tests begin again. She is coaxed to join in by her sister, who hands her a ball of yarn:

What happens next I'll leave you to read or guess - suffice to say that sometimes Halloween miracles do happen. 

Related reading: Rose Terry Cooke's poem "All-Saints' Eve", published in The Atlantic in 1880, also dwells on the idea of Halloween as a time when the dead return to the living - and not for Gothic thrills, but as a communion devoutly to be wished:

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