Frankenstein: A Cultural History

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

As nearly everyone knows, I am a frequenter of libraries. Weekly visits include taking out movies, scanning the audio book shelves and occasionally taking out magazines. One other favorite pastime is walking past the New Books shelves, both the fiction and non-fiction varieties. Can’t help it. Gotta see what’s happening, what is current in the literary scene, what’s new.

One one of my visits I found a book that immediately captured my interest, Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s Frankenstein: A Cultural History.

As noted here, monster flicks really grabbed me when I was a kid. Perhaps it was the thrill, the suspense, the sense of dread they invoked. Later, like children’s fairy tales and books by the likes of Dr. Seuss, one discovers that there are philosophical depths to many of these stories.

Illustration by the author.

In the late Seventies, when I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the original novel which inspired the films, I understood that there was much more here than just a few goosebumps around a campfire. And that is what Susan Hitchcock’s book is really about.

Hitchcock’s skill as a researcher stands out in this well constructed overview of Frankenstein’s influence. The book is immediately infectious and, if you have ever had any relationship to the monster that many of us have had, you’ll find plenty of dormant memories stirred.

Photo by the author from book by Ms. Hitchcock

For example, on page 233, one can find the instructions for building a plastic model of the Frankenstein monster, manufactured and sold by the Aurora company in the 1960’s. I had that model, but have long since forgotten it… until I picked up this book.

One reviewer put it this was: “Hitchcock’s book is infectiously readable. I’m a big fan of Frankenstein (novel, movie, mythology) and have to say this book does not disappoint. Hitchcock’s book is well-researched and even entertaining. What fascinated me most was all the parallels she was able to find, some obvious, some innovative, to what culture and society has created since Shelley’s 1818 publication.”Here’s something I find really cool, though. Unlike writers in the past, modern writers can have websites and blogs. Thus it is that I took a chance to see if I could make contact with the author. Sure enough, ’twas done.What follows is my interview with the Susan Tyler Hitchcock. Ten questions… great answers. Lots of fun.

1. I see that this is but one of many books… your thirteenth, actually. Which was your first?

Susan Tyler Hitchcock: My first book was Gather Ye Wild Things: A Forager’s Year, published originally by Harper & Row in 1980 and in paperback by the University of Virignia Press in 1995, still in print today. It’s a collection of 52 essays, as if one for each week of the year, about edible and useful wild plants, combining botany, folklore, and practical information on gathering and cooking. It’s illustrated with delicate line drawings by my dear friend, Gail McIntosh. My other books range far and wide: a family memoir about a year spent sailing in the Caribbean, called Coming About: A Family Passage at Sea; a pictorial history of the University of Virginia; a broad, illustrated history of religion called Geography of Religion — those are a few of the 13.

2. Has this been your most fun book to write because of the long term interest you have had in The Monster?

STH: Every book has its measure of fun, and every book has its measure of hard work, even anguish some times. This book, Frankenstein: A Cultural History, had its satisfactions because I had been collecting Frankenstein gewgaws and editions for more than 20 years, and to pull them all out and make something of them other than a carton full of candy wrappers and greeting cards was great fun intellectually.

3. Essentially, your book appears to be about the impact of the Frankenstein story on our culture. Can you summarize in a few sentences your conclusions on this matter?

STH: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein framed our discussions of the human ability to create and manipulate life. She created a mythic figure that embodies our fears, which makes them all the more palpable and real. I do not believe that her novel itself carried a clear moral message — I find Frankenstein highly ambivalent, both congratulating and damning Victor Frankenstein for daring to overstep the limits of human knowledge. But culture picked the story up and immediately turned it into a moral tale. In some sense, I was trying to rescue the myth from simplification and highlight its complexities.

4. Do you have a favorite Frankenstein movie? If so, which one and why?

STH: Mmmmmm — I am having a hard time choosing between the first two Karloffs — Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein — and a couple of tangential films, Edward Scissorhands (which I don’t even mention in my book) and Frankenstein Unbound (which I do, only briefly). The two early Karloff films are primeval in their understanding of the complicated character of the monster, horrifying to see yet pathetic in his inner being. Bride is a particularly sophisticated and stylish, subtle film. Tim Burton’s Edward is a great story. Frankenstein Unbound makes you think, and does ingenious things with the fascinating characters of the summer of 1816 when the novel was first born.

5. What is your opinion of the direction the Horror genre has gone in Hollywood?

STH: Too much blood, not enough shivers.

6. What motivated you to become a writer in the first place?

STH: My love of words. It is always a challenge to find just the right word, and then to find the right rhythm in a sequence of words. I hear what I write and listen for the music as well as the meaning. It certainly wasn’t because I thought I could make money at it.

7. I see you have a blog and a website. How do you think the internet will impact the world of literature?

STH: Authors and publishers everywhere are struggling to find the right answers to that question. Books are becoming objects, while text is becoming a screen event. I do not think books will perish, but I think we need to find things that books can do that screen content cannot. I think that books are becoming personal museums, and the more we can pack into a book as if it is a collection to be visited and savored, the better.

8. What did your parents do for a living and was there a “life lesson” that you picked up from either of them?

STH: When my parents met and married, they were both students of music. My mother was a pianist and my father a musicologist — a historian of music. My father was also a writer and editor, and he founded a center for the study of American music which has been just been renamed for him: the H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College in New York. I have already mentioned how I listen as I write, and the ever-presence of music in my childhood was formative. A deep respect for scholarship combined with the desire to write for more than just the scholarly community is something my father, an intellect and a populist, inspired.

9. Do you have a personal motto or life mission that keeps you motivated?

STH: It has changed over time. Right now it’s one my daughter (now 22) taught me from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.”

10. And finally… What are you working on now?

STH: Right now I am taking a hiatus from writing my own books and I am midwiving others’ books, working as a book editor at the National Geographic Society. I develop books from idea to words and pictures on the page, and I am learning more about the business of book publishing than I ever knew from the author’s point of view. Meanwhile many ideas are rumbling about in my head about new book projects of my own — perhaps something on John Milton and the writing of Paradise Lost, perhaps something on the famous summer of 1816 when Frankenstein was inspired, or perhaps something entirely new and different.

If you can’t find the book at your local bookstore, it’s available online at

Photo of Susan Tyler Hitchcock and friends courtesy Susan Tyler Hitchcock.

Originally published at in October 2008

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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