Book Reviews

Lucy E. Frank, Ed. Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture.

Lucy E. Frank, Ed. Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture.

Representing the re-launch of a collaborative series between the Humanities Research Centre at Warwick University and Ashgate Publishing, Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture is part of the Warwick Studies in the Humanities series which affords diverse depictions of national boundaries and cultural history/ies, both within and without Europe. This particular collection of essays, edited by Lucy E. Frank, is devoted to textual representations of death in nineteenth-century America. This is immediately made clear by the cover, which shows a confederate memorial service, directly locating death as its subject and suggesting the political and cultural resonances of its portrayal. The text continues the use of seemingly ‘silent’ illustrations throughout, supporting and at times subverting the written narratives.

Lucy Frank’s ‘Introduction: Curious Dreams: Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture’ establishes the core concerns or complications and contradictions of death and its associations with reference to Mark Twain’s ‘The Curious Dream’ (1870), a marginal text in the Twain canon. This use of marginal and yet simultaneously establishment texts and authors is continued in the subsequent essays which refer to texts both inside and outside the literary canon and to writers from the cultural elite and from marginalized positions. Gender and race are central concerns and are further explored in the later chapters: as Frank observes, ‘[i]t is […] crucial, if we wish to expand our understanding of American history and culture, to make audible these silenced voices and to hear them alongside the voices of those who enjoyed the privileges of citizenship.’ (2) The concept of the ‘socially dead’ is a recurrent theme in nineteenth-century American narratives and the essays here explore this in conjunction with their exploration of the more usual concept of death. Frank contends that the common ‘deathbed’ scenes found in sentimental women’s fiction of the period are not the only representations of death as the following essays demonstrate. The reader is initially left with the disconcerting, unresolved notion of ‘the perpetual enigma of mortality’ (6), a complex concept in which these literary essays and the texts they employ seek to resolve or respond to.

The first part of the book is sub-titled ‘Death, Citizenship and the Politics of Mourning’ and, as this title suggests, the essays individually investigate aspects of the political issues connected with both death and mourning in nineteenth-century America. John J. Kucich, Jeffrey Steele, Dana Luciano, Stephan Shapiro, Kevin Grauke, and Joanne van der Woude all reflect upon these political themes, with ideas that sometimes coalesce, sometimes diverge in their discussions of death and its relationship with nation and nationality. The essays draw on texts political, factual and fictional, including an 1887 translation of an early nineteenth-century speech by Chief Seattle and writings by authors as diverse as Hannah Craft, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, President Lincoln (the Address at Gettysburg), Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn), Charles Chesnutt, Rebecca Harding Davis and W.E.B Du Bois. The topics covered include mournfulness; ‘Suicide as Dialectical Ideological Sign’; black mortality; black and gendered agency; language and the complexities of transmissions and translations; white, African-American and Native Americans and their writing; hybridity; dispossession; slavery and its effects; the relationship between race and class.

The second part of the collection, ‘Signatures and Elegies’ expands on the questions and interpretations of death raised in the first section, focussing on gender roles, the political resonances within poetry, and the question of authorship. Alison Chapman, Paula Bernat Bennett, and Jessica F. Roberts consider the ‘Haunting of American Women Poets’, and child death in poetry and anthologies. The authors they discuss are those influenced by the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as others, and the essays demonstrate how American women poets re-worked their own writing and philosophies through the medium of homage, using their poetry and pen/s to explore nationality, geography and politics. The ‘haunting’ implied by the essay title has gothic connotations and conveys a sense of the metonymic, partially represented ‘other’. Chapman, in her focus on Barrett Browning’s work, positions American women’s homage poems as forging ‘a transatlantic sub-genre, the poetess praise poem’ (110) and explores the implications of such re-workings of bodily and deathly representation within and across from the nineteenth-century American context. Chapman also investigates ‘a subversive if anxious seduction’ (113) as ‘the praise poem becomes an ambivalent scene of [lesbian] erotic enchantment’ (113) for the female. Bennett examines elegies written by Frances Harper, Emily Dickinson, Lydia Sigourney, and Sarah Piatt, in conjunction with the figure of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and child death within a religious framework. She argues that

‘[c]hild death was one of the principle defining events of the nineteenth century’ (126) and that: In their poems on child death, which run the gamut from evangelical-based orthodoxy to flat-out rebellion, women confront their understanding of God and his governance in terms of the sorrows inflicted upon them and their families, on their society as a whole or, as with the Indians and slaves, on some other social subset within it. (126-7)

Roberts specifically engages with ‘Conventions and Dead Children’ within her essay, drawing on the popular anthologies of death published in the period. She states that

the proliferation of these anthologies in America between 1827 and 1899 modifies the current critical landscape of the economy of consolation in nineteenth-century America and rehistoricizes the production, circulation and reception of the sentimental infant elegy. (141)

She also asserts that elegies, while traditionally assumed to be associated with the feminine, are in fact interchangeable between men and women.

Part three of the collection, ‘Cultures of Death’, concentrates on different articulations, representations or artistic interpretations of death. These include the ‘Fashion of Mourning’; ‘detachment’ in Poe’s crime and mystery writing; ‘Spectres on the New York Stage’; ‘Blinding Art: Mesmerism and Female Artistic Agency’; and ‘Spiritualism and Shakerism’. Contributors here are Ann Schofield, Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Dassia N. Posner, Ann Heilmann and Kelly Richardson. This section is where the eight illustrations of the book are located, exemplifying, as do the essays, that the wide definitions of ‘culture’ and death are visible in image and text and in the interplay between the two. Schofield interrogates mourning and bourgeoisie mores and the objectification of women by fashion, focussing on the woman in mourning dress. Miller examines Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’, which was based on an 1840 case in New York but which Poe relocated in Paris, thus permitting him to be complicit with the discourse of death, yet distance himself ‘from the scene of the atrocity’ (173). Posner focuses on the ghost plays which were popular in New York City in 1863, and how these on stage representations coincided with and attempted to explain and contain the contemporary violence off-stage of the New York draft riots and the Civil War. Heilmann focuses on Alcott’s short story ‘A Pair of Eyes’ (1863), drawing from it inferences about mesmeric, gendered relationships and the spectacle of destruction which can be read metaphorically as representing nineteenth-century US society. Richardson concentrates on spiritualism and shakerism in relation to both William Dean Howells’s The Undiscovered Country (1880) and the wider literary world of the time.

The collection, with its informative and disparate reflections on the representation of death within the nineteenth-century, leaves the reader admiring the wide range of approaches taken by the contributors. Death and it various ramifications has here been examined though a range of lenses, via a number of interesting angles and voices, drawing on writers and critics from both outside and inside the canon, male and female. Confronted with a multiplicity of depictions of death, in words and pictures, poetry, novels, short stories, factual accounts, the reader is encouraged to consider - or reconsider - the cultural functions and significance of human mortality in the nineteenth century and its legacy in the present.

Kate Watson
Cardiff University