Aulas Abertas - RHOSE 2024

Rhose 29 | 15 March 2024 | 11:00

Representations of Home Open Seminar



Basements and living rooms occupy distinct compartments within the imaginary and affective interior of the modern American home — the latter always imagined as a detached, single-family dwelling or ‘house.’ The living room is, ideally, a zone of light, safety and ‘family values,’ while the basement is typically dark, sinister and, both literally and figuratively, the living room’s underside. 

Whatever the origins of this domestic imaginary, it is already on full display in 19th century American fiction. For a possible genealogy of the basement as, for example, a favorite setting for modern horror genres one need look no further than Edgar Allan Poe in tales such as “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”  

The cultural genealogy of the living room is more diffuse, but there is no better window onto it than chapter XVII of Mark Twain’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Twain depicts, in stunning and meticulous detail, the “parlor” in the home of the Grangerfords, a well-to-do, slave-owning family in the 1840s Mississippi Valley who briefly adopt the shipwrecked Huck. The room, as it turns out, is a kind of shrine to the Grangerford’s prematurely deceased teenage daughter Emmeline, whose funereal drawings and poems, on prominent display, are the objects of Twain’s superb, almost affectionate satire.  

Here, too, as in Poe’s basements, an ‘American gothic’— and in Huckleberry Finn’s case a Victorian — taste for the morbid is clearly in evidence. The deeper historical and social sources for such morbidity are complex and difficult if not impossible to establish with any certainty, but surely no one witnessing the appalling violence and morbidity of the contemporary United States can fail to recognize certain prophetic echoes, distinct though they may be, in the sinister domestic interiors imagined by both Poe and Twain. 


Keywords: United States, 19th century, fiction, domestic interiors, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain



Neil Larsen, professor emeritus of Comparative Literature, has taught at Northeastern University in Boston, the University of California, Davis and the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He is the author of Modernism and Hegemony (1990); Reading North by South (1995) and Determinations (2001) as well as numerous essays and articles in English, Spanish, Portuguese and German. His areas of research include Comparative Literature; Latin American literature and Latin American studies; and Critical Theory.  He is retired and lives in Lisbon

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