Death in American Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Death in American Literature (Vol. 89)


Death in American Literature

Scholars of American literature have pointed out that the theme of death has always been a presence in American writings—from early colonial diaries and through the nineteenth century—because death was perceived to be ever-present in people's lives. Up until the late eighteenth century, the majority of children born into a family died before reaching adulthood. However, in the nineteenth century, as scholars like J. Gerald Kennedy, Wendy Simonds, and Barbara Katz Rothman note, this trend reversed itself; along with greater life expectancy also came the popularity of the genre of consolation poetry, especially elegies dealing with maternal grief. Popular women's magazines such as Godey's and Peterson's filled their pages with poems lamenting the death of family members, particularly children, and friends. Several other changes in society also contributed to the growth of this trend. With the decline of Calvinism as the main American religion, many people turned to evangelical Christianity, where more sentimentality was permitted.

The nineteenth century also stressed the cult of domesticity, especially motherhood, and the flourishing of Romantic ideas in America emphasized and even fetishized death in literature. Gothic romances and graveyard poetry enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Many critics have suggested that the scene in which little Eva dies in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin represents the quintessential moment in nineteenth-century American literature, since all who witness her death are moved and eventually changed by that experience. In addition to poetic laments, elegies took the form of narratives describing the deceased's illness and moment of death, personal meditations on the meaning of death, essays written to offer support to others experiencing the death of someone close to them, and even first-person narratives from the point of view of the deceased, usually children. Consolation would be provided in terms of reminders of the cyclicality of nature itself, expressions of disbelief, and exhortations to view death as a part of a larger Christian framework. Wendy Simonds, Barbara Katz Rothman, and Laurence Lerner have studied consolation poetry and have characterized it as the sole domain of women, a world apart from the writing of men, where they could express themselves freely and enjoy a sense of sisterly solidarity. Recent studies have focused on the feminist aspects of this genre and on the subtle ways in which women exerted their influence and power through these texts.

Descended from the tradition of Puritan religion but also influenced by sentimentalism and Romantic views of death, Emily Dickinson presented a highly individualistic treatment of death in her poems. Unable or unwilling to be consoled by strict religious tenets regarding death, Dickinson was, scholars have pointed out, equally intent on exposing the sentimentality and false hope offered by Romantic conventions. In fact, as Michael Staub has written, Dickinson in her poetry “clinically dissected … the contradictions of these conventions.” Elizabeth A. Petrino, too focuses on Dickinson's questioning of “the validity of consoling fictions” in her poems. Using mainly images drawn from nature but sharpening the intensity of her poems with her skillful use of diction, Dickinson insisted on facing the reality of death, and was particularly fascinated, as some of her poems attest, by the very moment of death. In poems such as “Because I could not stop for Death,” “The Last Night that She Lived,” and “I’ve seen a dying eye,” Dickinson offered unflinching evidence of the finality of death and offered not consolation but controlled despair or acceptance. Some readers have found Dickinson's poetry morbid, but critics such as Barton Levi St. Armand have emphasized the fact that, to Dickinson, death was ever-present and life was a “full-stage dress rehearsal for Death.” In order to characterize her style, scholars have compared Dickinson's use of metaphor to her predecessor, the puritan poet Edward Taylor and to the metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert, all of whom stress personal experience of God.

If Dickinson resisted the cult of sentimentalism surrounding death in the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe fully embraced it, as critics maintain. In his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, he presented short story after short story in which death is viewed as a beautiful and transcendent experience. In fact, he is remembered for his dictum that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic subject for literature. Recent scholars like Beth Ann Bassein and J. Gerald Kennedy have written about the psychological and feminist ramifications of Poe's view of women and have censured his frequent portrayal of women as victims in the stories. Influenced by the Romantic Gothic tradition, Poe was also very interested in the physical aspect of death and in various conceptual models of different kinds of death. Modern scholars, notably Kennedy, have written about the literary effect Poe achieved by adopting such an extreme style and have speculated about what his style suggests about the process of writing itself. Although Poe's short stories and poems still receive much critical attention, his novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has become the central focus of new Poe criticism. Described as a symbolic voyage from commonplace reality to death, Pym, with its central ambiguity and problematic signification, has captured the attention of Poe critics, who have discussed it as a commentary on the act of writing itself.

As critics have become more interested in the psychology of Poe in relation to his writings, so have they delved more deeply into the psychology of the writings of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman as they explore their handling of the theme of death. Much has been written about the theme of death in Melville's Moby Dick, Pierre, and Typee; all three novels explore the experience of death both on a personal and a social plane. Edwin Shneidman, in his extended discussion of Ahab's psychology in Moby Dick, concludes that the character represents “a classic illustration of the traditional psychological position of suicide,” with much unresolved tension, displayed on Melville's part in the constant shifting of tone in the novel. Discussing the problem of unresolved grief in Moby Dick, critic Pamela A. Boker turns to Melville's biography and his relationship with his parents. Helen Vendler has written about Whitman's handling of the elegy form in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” emphasizing Whitman's reliance on natural rhythms for consolation and what she terms his de-Christianizing of consolation. Critics David Cavitch, Lance Dean, and Anthony X. Marriage explore some biographical influences of Whitman's view of death, focusing on his relationship with his parents, his notorious inability to conclude, and his unresolved sexual leanings.

Representative Works

Emily Dickinson
Poems (poetry) 18??

(The entire section is 4 words.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Writing and the Problem of Death” in Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 1-31.

[In the following essay, Kennedy examines the responses to death of various nineteenth-century American writers—including Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper—eventually focusing on the role of death in Poe's works.]

In the grip of death, Poe's Ligeia asks her husband to recite “certain verses composed by herself not many days before.” Nineteenth-century readers must have anticipated a scene of deathbed intimacy in which the dying woman would through a consolatory rhyme signify her...

(The entire section is 12253 words.)

Wendy Simonds and Barbara Katz Rothman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Mother's Lament: Nineteenth-Century Consolation Literature” in Centuries of Solace: Expressions of Maternal Grief in Popular Literature, Temple University Press, 1992, 33-104.

[In the following excerpt, Simonds and Rothman explore the various ways in which mothers expressed their grief at the death of a child in the context of nineteenth-century American culture.]

The literary forms women have used to describe their experiences of pregnancy loss and infant death have changed over the past two hundred years, but women's primary purposes in writing about these events have remained constant. From the nineteenth century to the present, American women's...

(The entire section is 13315 words.)