Angela Palm, Carpenter Gothic enthusiast
A quality of some places: though populous, no one seems to originate from there. Austin, Texas, for example. Last year I visited Austin with a trifecta of intention: viewing Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, visiting a friend from high school, and discovering what made the purportedly “weird” city weird. I arrived in an essay state of mind, in the thrall of anticipation. Which, of course, is a bad way to begin. It is decidedly different than beginning with an open mind. As Alain de Botton said, we “forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination.”
To add to the weirdness of our experience, we had selected non-traditional accommodations. My companion and I were to spend three nights in a rented, off-brand RV that was parked in a stranger’s backyard somewhere in the city’s east side. Referring to the RV as a retro Airstream was both generous and inaccurate. In fact, it resembled a jet fuselage. White and angular.
I arrived the night before my friend due to flight complications. The AirBnB host had invited me to the main house for coffee in the morning. I accepted with gratitude. Sixty seconds of conversation with him turned up an array of information. He was hungover. His home reeked of alcohol. He worked as a computer programmer. He had recently split up with his girlfriend. While he searched his refrigerator for cream, I tried not to notice the miniature greyhound humping the ottoman. The cream had curdled. Instead, the man offered Cool Whip for my coffee. This, though I didn’t yet know it, would be the height of the trip’s weirdness.
A quality of some architectural styles: though familiar, their most alluring aspects are perplexing. The Carpenter Gothic, for instance, is a romantic and eclectic homage to the Gothic architectural period. Only it isn’t. Not really. The Gothic Revival of 1700s Europe revisited medieval design with simple and romantic structures. Clear, selective nods. The North American Carpenter Gothic period though, spanning the 1840s to the 1940s, was a revival of that revival. And, unsurprisingly, a few key elements of the original style’s design were lost in translation. Of note, wood replaced stone, which is how the style got the “carpenter” name. Carpenters would add, as an afterthought, Gothic ornamentation atop older country homes. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls the style a “naive use of the most superficial and obvious motifs of Gothic decoration. Turrets, spires, and pointed arches were applied, in many instances with abandon, and there was usually no logical relationship of ornamentation to the structure of the house.” Turrets served no functional purpose in the Carpenter Gothic; they did not house spiral staircases.
A Google search for “Carpenter Gothic houses” produces varied results: mortise-and-tenon Colonial saltboxes with Gothic lacey trim; brick English Tudors topped with iron spires; three-storey Victorians with batten siding. They’re a little strange. It’s not entirely clear what mood they aim to evoke. Aesthetically, I’ve been attracted to this wide-ranging style for years. But that attraction was always, and still is, mysterious precisely because its identifying features are hybrid in nature. They borrow from and blend with other distinct architectural periods at whim. The Carpenter Gothic, then, inherently resists clear definition. After learning more about its history, I recognized my fondness for these houses as being similar to my fondness for the slippery terms and forms of creative non-fiction, such as the lyric and braided essays, and the many ways in which the genre and its subgenre, the essay, blur.
A quality of some essays: though some of their parts are identifiable as sprung from other forms, their defining features can be elusive. The form of the essay itself remains emergent and elastic, thus the nomenclature to support its internal machinery must develop in its wake. The language used to analyze essays is often borrowed from more formally established genres. For example, the term lyric is borrowed from poetry. The term scene is borrowed from fiction. Neither poetic nor fictional executions of these terms require truth. But there is no new term when we refer to them in the name of fact- and experience-based writing. There is little accommodation in the naming of creative non-fiction’s parts. Its turrets do not necessarily house staircases either. A lyric line does not especially denote an internal music as it does in poetry. A scene rendered from memory does not especially denote precision of fact, though it is based in the truth of experience. It does mimic the traditional construction of scene in fictional works. The term composite may be attached to character or scene in creative non-fiction, but is that extension enough? That is, does it connote all the varied ways in which character is reconstructed in the essay? All the ways in which scene is remade?
What terms are available to describe repetition in the essay? In poetry, various kinds of repetition are given distinguishing terms. Alliteration, consonance, and rhyme refer to specific types of repeated letters and sounds. The villanelle and sestina forms of poetry denote specific types of repetition of line and/or stanza. But what do we call the repetition that occurs in Annie Dillard’s essay, “Total Eclipse”? “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread.” And then, “I lay in bed. My husband, Gary, was reading beside me. I lay in bed and looked at the painting on the hotel room wall.” What shall we call the long list of responses in the lyric essay, “Stars,” by Eliot Weinberger? “The stars: what are they? They are chunks of ice reflecting the sun; they are lights afloat on the waters beyond the transparent dome; they are nails nailed to the sky.” And what of the piecemeal, linked construction of “42 Tattoos” by David Shields in which tattoos are documented and analyzed, threaded through the needle’s eye, looped around, and through again?
Disagreement swirls around the term creative non-fiction, the history of which Dinty Moore handily summarizes on Creative Nonfiction magazine’s blog. Eric LeMay has his say on the definition in River Teeth: “As soon as we see the essay, the memoir, the rant as creative non-fiction, we see the essential weirdness of what these forms are meant to accomplish: nothing less than to remake reality into an aesthetic experience.” If we are still nailing down a definition for the entire genre, what does that mean for the subgenres of memoir and essay? The most I can figure is they’re born from imprecision—the opposite of accuracy.
My father was a carpenter. I remember the work he put into planning a new home improvement project, a sprawling patio, an elaborate shelving system for his 100 succulent plants. He would recall something he’d seen on TV or at another person’s house, draw out the design the way he remembered it, gather the materials, and then execute his vision. Sometimes it would come out as planned, and other times it would morph along the way: a surprise cabinet, an extra stair, wood in place of metal. It would bear likeness to the original vision, but it would be unique. Different in some way. Not quite like what he’d seen on TV.
Like the Carpenter Gothic, like my father’s construction projects, the essay renders itself anew with every iteration of publishing without precise adherence to an original form. It is a House of Leaves that reshapes itself in the dark while the world sleeps.
Some trips don’t go as planned either. We never saw Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. Though the library’s exhibit room was open on Saturdays, the archives were closed. My anticipation of the experience inhibited my preparedness. I’d pre-selected the experience. I’d wanted to write about it before anything even happened. I simply forgot to check the library’s hours of operation. Instead, my girlfriend and I toured the Gone with the Wind exhibit (“Clark Gable or 1,000,000 hearts broken,” read the handwritten note from the author to the casting director). Later that night, I barely spoke with the old friend I intended to see. Instead, my travel companion and I hung out with strangers and argued with them about relative degrees of artistic freedom. We didn’t eat at any of the city’s famous barbecue joints. Instead, we ate at an oyster bar in central Texas. Austin didn’t do any of the things we thought it would, but we had a lovely time, if not quite “weird.” For me, the essay’s most defining feature is just that: the promise of surprise and an experience that invents itself line by line. It discovers its own intention in the thick of itself. I would say that the best essays are also, to some degree, unplanned.
A friend told me that she recently realized, after decades of attempts toward other ends, that not all relationships between two people were necessarily building into something more meaningful. Some, if not a great many, were only of the moment and should be appreciated as such. The open-minded person is capable of this, but the person who embraces anticipation, an expectation placed on a future experience, is less so. This is where the Carpenter Gothic and the essay speak best to one another. They aren’t necessarily building toward a more clearly defined form, but instead generate an interaction between the crafter and the viewer that doesn’t follow an expected code, such as those found in fiction or poetry. The magic of the essay, and also of the Carpenter Gothic, is singularity. It’s discovering that the top of the empty turret wants for a secret room.