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??

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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...

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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.)

Criticism: Death In The Works Of Emily Dickinson

Natalie Harris (essay date 1983)

”The Naked and the Veiled: Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson in Counterpoint,” Dickinson Studies, No. 45, June, 1983, pp. 23-34.

[In the following essay, Harris compares Dickinson's response to death with that of poet Sylvia Plath as seen in their poems, finding that Plath tends to be more explicit and Dickinson more transcendent in their attitudes.]

Among American poets, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath form an idiosyncratic pair. They happen to have written their best poetry when they were the same age, one century apart, but they are connected more profoundly by their struggles against forces that seemed to carry the weight of fate. They wrote poems on many of...

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Katrina Bachinger (essay date 1985)

”Dickinson's ‘I heard a Fly buzz,’” The Explicator, Vol. 43. No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 12-15.

[In the excerpt below, Bachinger presents a reading of Dickinson's “I heard a Fly Buzz” as a response to John Donne's Sermon 78—in which she equates the fly with God.]

“Why is that ‘Fly’ in the room? … And why, further, is death (the moment of death) personified as the ‘King,’ if that’s what’s being personified?” asks George Monteiro (The Explicator, 43[1], 44). Seeking a precedent for the conjunction of Fly and King, he notes that according to folklore, flies are permitted to dine at kings' tables because once, by mimicking nails...

(The entire section is 1488 words.)

Phillip Stambovsky (essay date 1986)

”Emily Dickinson's ‘The Last Night that She Lived’: Explorations of a Witnessing Spirit,” Concerning Poetry, Vol. 19, 1986, pp. 87-93.

[In the following excerpt, Stambovsky offers a very detailed reading of “The Last Night that She Lived,” asserting that Dickinson accepts the reality of death through her “intimate confrontation” with it in the poem.]

Emily Dickinson's “The Last Night that She Lived” is a psychologically acute rendering of an unhinging spiritual experience. Far from being an immersion in morbid pathos, however, the poem is a brilliantly searching study of the consciousness of witnessing a death.

The last Night...

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Janet W.Buell (essay date 1989)

“‘A Slow Solace’: Emily Dickinson and Consolation,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXII, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 323-45.

[In the following essay, Buell traces Dickinson's attitude toward death and aging through her poetry, suggesting that Dickinson came to accept death in her later life and found consolation in nature.]

“That Bareheaded life—under the grass—worries one like a Wasp.”1 In her letter to Samuel Bowles, written during her most productive period, Emily Dickinson expressed a lifelong preoccupation and state of mind. A hovering concern with death harassed, threatened, and sometimes stung her painfully. In 1883, soon after...

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Elizabeth A. Petrino (essay date 1994)

“‘Feet so precious charged’: Dickinson, Sigourney, and the Child Elegy,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall 1994, pp. 317-38.

[In the excerpt below, Petrino compares the treatment of children's deaths in the poems of Dickinson and Lydia Sigourney, finding Dickinson more likely to question “the validity of consoling fictions.”]

Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light,
Pangless except for us—
Who slowly ford the Mystery
Which thou hast leaped across!
Emily Dickinson(1)

Like many popular nineteenth-century elegists, Dickinson in her letters idealized children as pious exemplars, yet she was uncertain whether their early deaths...

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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Herman Melville

Leslie A. Fiedler (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Power of Blackness: Faustian Man and the Cult of Violence” in Love and Death in the American Novel, Revised Edition, Dell Publishing, 1966, pp. 430-505.

[In the following excerpt, Fiedler discusses the idea of despair in Melville's works, asserting that Melville's style changed from gothic to sentimental as his career progressed.]

Melville was truer, finally, to the vision of blackness, which he pretended to have discovered in Hawthorne, than was Hawthorne himself. The reality of damnation he never denied; but the meaning of it, for one committed to a skeptical and secular view, he questioned. Especially in his later works, he presented the...

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Edwin Shneidman (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Suicidal Psycho-Logics of Moby-DickYouth Suicide Prevention: Lessons from Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, Insight Books, 1989, pp. 15-47.

[In the following excerpt, Shneidman offers a psychological portrait of Ahab and his relationship to Moby-Dick as “a classical illustration of the traditional psychoanalytical position of suicide.”]


From the first exciting moment that one looks at Moby-Dick as logic, it is startlingly clear that the book, as a living entity, and Melville-Ishmael, as driving intellects, have rich and textured ways of thinking...

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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Edgar Allan Poe

J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Phantasms of Death in Poe's Fiction” in The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1920, edited by Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow, University of Georgia Press, 1983, pp. 39-65.

[In the essay that follows, Kennedy discusses four conceptual models of death in Poe's fiction: physical annihilation, compulsion, separaration, and transformation.]

The tales of Edgar Allan Poe display an elaborate repertoire of supernatural motifs, so well adapted to the evocation of horror that one might suppose the frisson to be their exclusive object. Otherwise discerning readers have thus fixed upon such phantasmagoria as evidence of Poe's...

(The entire section is 10538 words.)

J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Pym Pourri: Decomposing the Textual Body” in Poe's Pym. Critical Explorations, edited by Richard Kopley, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 167-74.

[In the following excerpt, Kennedy examines Poe's handling of putrefaction in The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, suggesting that the use of this taboo subject “afforded him the perfect trope for his own revolting and revolutionary project.”]

We cannot be sure whether Poe or some nameless functionary at Harper and Brothers constructed the elaborate subtitle for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket which summarizes the novel's sensational elements. But the sixteen-line...

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J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Poe, ‘Ligeia,’ and the Problem of Dying Women” in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 113-29.

[In the excerpt below, Kennedy examines Poe's attitude toward women in his fiction, focusing on “Ligeia.” Kennedy asserts that Poe must have resented women, like the male narrators in his stories, who recognize their unwitting emotional dependence on women.]

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” that notorious essay which proclaims the death of a beautiful woman “the most poetical topic in the world,” Poe devised a self-congratulatory rationale for the form and content of his...

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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Walt Whitman

Anthony X. Marriage (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Whitman's ‘This Compost,’ Beaudelaire's ‘A Carrion’: Out of Decay Comes an Awful Beauty,” Walt Whitman Review, Vol. 27, No, 4, December, 1981, pp. 143-49.

[Below, Marriage compares Whitman's treatment of the theme of putrefaction with that of Charles Beaudelaire, concluding that “by dealing with the horror of the images of decay, these poets resurrect before man's eye the activity of life within death.”]

When I arrived in England I was appalled at the British attitude to death. To die seemed almost an act of indecency—if you have fallen so low as to die, then there were special people who would come, undertakers, to pack...

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David Cavitch (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Lament in ‘Song of the Broad-Axe’” in Walt Whitman: Here and Now, edited by Joann P. Krieg, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 125-35.

[In the following excerpt, Cavitch discusses Whitman's attempt to come to terms with his father's death and with his mother's self-centeredness in his “Song of the Broad-Axe.]

Within a week after the first publication of Leaves of Grass, in which Whitman was proclaiming himself the liberator of all the downtrodden spirits in the world, the poet's begrudging father died on July 11, 1855, as if erased by his inspired son's declarations of independence. He had been seriously ill for a few years, partly paralyzed,...

(The entire section is 4237 words.)

Helen Vendler (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Whitman's ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’” in Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Anne Caws, The Modern Langauge Association of America, 1986, pp. 132-43.

[In the following excerpt, Vendler examines the various influences on Whitman's style in his “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and stresses his “de-Christianizing” of the elegy form.]

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is one of six elegies that Whitman wrote for Lincoln. Two of them were rejected from Leaves of Grass;1 he printed the other four together (1871 Second Issue) under the general title “Memories of...

(The entire section is 6188 words.)

Lance Dean (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘O so loth to depart!’: Whitman's Reluctance to Conclude,” ATQ, Vol. 7, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 77-90.

[Below, Dean explores Whitman's difficulty in coming to a conclusion and facing temporality as evidenced in his poetry, noting that he does finally succeed in accepting endings in his First Annex: Sands at Seventy.]

Like most of us, Walt Whitman found taking leave difficult. Though justly famous for his settings out, he faced the challenge of concluding his engagement with his themes, his readers, his poem, and his life. “After the Supper and Talk,” from which I’ve taken my title, expresses Whitman's keen awareness of his reluctance to conclude,...

(The entire section is 6022 words.)

Vivian R. Pollak (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Death as Repression, Repression as Death: A Reading of Whitman's ‘Calamus Poems’” in Walt Whitman of Mickle Street, edited by Geoffrey M. Sill, The University of Tennessee Press, 1994, pp. 179-93.

[In the following excerpt, Pollak suggests that in his “Calamus Poems” “Whitman uses death tropes both to deny the fulfillment of his eroticism and to affirm its vitality in the face of social and psychological oppression.”]

In a desperate and comical moment several years before his death in 1892, Whitman wrote to his English admirer John Addington Symonds that he had fathered six children; referred to a grandson, a “fine boy, who writes to...

(The entire section is 5467 words.)