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.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 readiness to die. Similar scenes filled contemporary fiction and poetry and—according to memoirs and biographies of the same period—mirrored a pervasive social practice. In Victorian England as well as America, “the deathbed presented the last preserve of truth; it was a final opportunity to repent, admonish or encourage.” The deathbed scene enabled writers of fiction to convey “the basic importance of the moral scheme” which underlay the popular literature of the day.1 Dickens relied shamelessly on valedictions such as the passing of Little Johnny in Our Mutual Friend, and Charlotte Brontë drew upon the same convention to dispatch Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. For mid-century American readers, Uncle Tom's...
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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 writing about infant death has served as a means of self-expression for its writers as well as an aid to other women coping with grief. The existence of literature created for bereaved mothers in the nineteenth century shows that the suffering of bereaved mothers is not just a modern cultural phenomenon—enabled by a trickle-down of the feminist ideology of the 1960s and 1970s—or a response to the more “planned” family of the post-pill years. This has happened before.
During the nineteenth century, women's magazines were a rich source of consolation writing. The first surge of women's magazines enjoyed popularity at the same time that evangelical Christianity propelled consolation literature to its peak, from roughly...
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”Sentimentality: For and Against” in Angels and Absences: Child Deaths in the Nineteenth Century, Vanderbilt University Press, 1997, 174-212.
[In the excerpt below, Lerner discusses the reception of the sentimental style used in describing children's deaths and asserts that it has received more favorable attention in recent times because it has been linked with feminism.]
The whirligig of taste has performed many somersaults, but none more drastic than that concerning the sentimental child death. Sentimentality, which entered literature so self-consciously in the later eighteenth century, rode high in mid-Victorian times but by the twentieth century had disappeared from high culture, though it remained very much alive in popular culture—and the savagery with which [Aldous] Huxley and [F. R.] Leavis attack it may be partly directed at the “romantic” novels and tear-jerking films of their own day. Only in the last decade has there been a serious attempt to rehabilitate it.
The new case for sentimentality is feminist: it claims that the sentimental tradition is important because it is a way of empowering women. This view belongs primarily to American academic discourse, the tradition that it rehabilitates is above all that of the American sentimental novel, and the novel it concentrates on is, of course, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Much of the basis for this new view is set forth...
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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Emily Dickinson
”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 the same themes, notably the extremist ones of death, pain, and love lost. They each made innovative use of domestic, religious, and nature imagery. Above all, they resemble one another in the peculiar pressure they put on language to generate startling intensities. Yet they apply this pressure and generate their intensities in quite distinct ways: Dickinson by what she elides, withholds, veils by metaphor, or otherwise leaves enigmatically indeterminate, and Plath by what she refuses to elide, by what she unveils and makes explicit. The earlier poet proclaims and follows her hermetic injunction to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” while her twentieth—century successor puts into practice her urgent directive to “let down the...
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”A Continuation of the Tradition of the Irony of Death,” Dickinson Studies, No. 54, Bonus 1984, pp. 33-37.
[In the following excerpt, Bzowski examines Dickinson's “Because I could not stop for Death” in the context of the medieval Dance of Death tradition, which was intended to remind people of the close relationship between life and death.]
In approaching any poem by Emily Dickinson, the wary reader is wise to keep in mind the advice given by John Bunyan in one of the closing quatrains of his Pilgrim's Progress:
Put by the Curtains, look within my Vail: Turn up my Metaphors and do not fail There, if thou seekest them, such things to find, As will be helpful to an honest mind.
Just as Bunyan warned his reader to look beyond the curtaining veil of his metaphors, so, too, does Emily Dickinson employ techniques of veiled meaning, which, when uncovered, often reveal startling conclusions which are quite contrary to the surface meaning or tone of the poem. Such, probably, is the case with one of her most famous poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.”
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is indeed a fitting place to begin an analysis of this poem, for Dickinson seems to be drawing from several ancient views of death and the journey of the soul to eternity. Altho some of these allusions may be subconscious, there are suggestions not only of...
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”A Look at ‘Because I could not stop for Death,’”Dickinson Studies, No. 54, Bonus 1984, pp. 43-46.
[In the following essay, Staub demonstrates some ways in which Dickinson exposes the sentimentality of mourning conventions in “Because I could not stop for Death.”]
In January 1863, shortly after Louise and Frances Norcross were orphaned by the death of their father, Emily Dickinson included in her letter of consolation this verse:
It is not dying hurts us so,— ‘Tis living hurts us more; But dying is a different way, A kind, behind the door,— The southern custom of the bird That soon as frosts are due Adopts a better latitude. We are the birds that stay, The shiverers round farmers' doors, For whole reluctant crumb We stipulate, till pitying snows Persuade our feathers home.(1) (J 335)
In accordance with the consolation literature of her day, Dickinson softens the terrors of dying and death. The dead are scarcely losers as they bask in their warmer climate. It is for the living to await deliverance. Dickinson's analogy of the bird's flight “home” aligns comfortably with the sentimental notion of a slow journey towards salvation. Heaven will only be reached thru the efforts of each individual. There is no doubt as to whether Father Norcross has the strength to fly “home.”
The text of Dickinson's letter to the Norcross girls...
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”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, 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 at Christ's crucifixion, they spared him more. Consequently, Monteiro concludes, the conjunction of Fly and King was not Dickinson's invention, but “the grotesquerie of the conceptual meaning was undoubtedly the poet's” (45).
Monteiro is, I believe, on the right track in proposing a religious explication of Dickinson's symbolism, but I part from him by looking for the answers to his questions in theology rather than in folklore. Presumably one reason for Dickinson's personifying of Death as the King, “if that’s what’s being personified,” was that she recalled Job 18:14 where Death is titled the King of Terrors. And the rest of her poem also reflects traditional doctrinal Christian writings. Indeed, I suggest...
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”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 that She lived It was a Common Night Except the Dying—this to Us Made Nature different We noticed smallest things— Things overlooked before By this great light upon our Minds Italicized—as ’twere. As We went out and in Between Her final Room And Rooms where Those to be alive Tomorrow were, a Blame That Others could exist While She must finish quite A Jealousy for Her arose So nearly infinite— We waited while She passed— It was a narrow time— Too jostled were Our Souls to speak At length the notice came. She mentioned, and forgot— Then lightly as a Reed Bent to the Water, struggled scarce— Consented, and was dead— And We—We placed the Hair— And drew the Head erect— And then an awful leisure was Belief to...
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“‘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 the shattering death of her young nephew Gilbert, she wrote to Mrs. Holland, “is there more? More than Love and Death? Then tell me it’s name!” (L 873).
Emily Dickinson undertook an abiding quest for that name. Beginning with the death of her father in 1874 and mounting until the year of her own death in 1886 at the age of fifty-six, losses of family members, close friends, and eventually her own health carried sorrow from poetic imagination into actual experience, reflected in both letters and poems. In her lifelong attempt to trace the boundaries of certainties and possibilities, she found that love and death become only more acutely felt. The lineaments of Heaven still eluded her, but she grew to rely upon their...
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”’Looking at Death, is Dying’: Understanding Dickinson's Morbidity” in Approaches to Teaching Dickinson's Poetry, edited by Robin Riley Fast and Christine Mack Gordon, The Modern Language Association of America, 1989, pp. 155-63.
[In the following excerpt, St. Armand discusses Dickinson's stance toward death in her poetry as a mixture of the influences of her Puritan heritage and her Romantic historical context.]
Looking at Death, is Dying— Just let go the Breath— And not the pillow at your Cheek So Slumbereth—(281)
“But she’s so morbid!” is an often-heard lament from fresh readers of Emily Dickinson's poetry, whether they be sixteen or sixty. Those over sixty, or those who have been exposed to a conservative ethnic background where traditional funeral and mourning customs still prevail and who are familiar with old women dressing completely in black as an outward and visible sign of prolonged inner and immedicable grief, will have less of a problem with Dickinson's stress on the panoply of death and dying. But with modern exequies becoming more and more streamlined, antiseptic, and privatized, as the twentieth century itself begins to put out its last candles, the skull beneath the skin that grins at us in such poems as “Because I could not stop for Death” (712) or “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” (465) is beginning to seem as remote and as alien as...
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”Dickinson and the Process of Death,” Dickinson Studies, No. 77, 1st Half, 1991, pp. 33-43.
[Below, Hendrickson explores Dickinson's curiosity about the moment of death, pointing out how she uses the physical senses in her poems to try to understand the experience of dying.]
While many books and articles have been written on the topic of Emily Dickinson's death poems, virtually nothing has been published about her moment of death poems. On rare occasions, scholars have mentioned the moment of death poems as a sub-catagory of her death poems. In researching this paper, I found nothing which dealt with this topic any further. This is unfortunate, because the most fascinating of ED's death poems involve the description of the very moment of death. Some of these poems are seen thru the eyes of a bystander, and some are seen thru the eyes of the person who is dying. It has been documented by Dickinson in her own letters that she held a certain fascination about the process of dying. She had even been known to write letters to the bereaved, asking for the details of the deceased's final moments. Characteristically, this near-obsession with the process of dying found its way into her poetry. Perhaps the clearest example of her morbid curiosity is “To know just how He suffered—would be dear: (622). This poem is virtually a series of questions asking about a man's death. The speaker asks if the man's eyes...
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”Disengagement from Process in ED's 712,” Dickinson Studies, No. 83, 2nd Half, 1992, pp. 38-48.
[In the following excerpt, Winniford offers a detailed reading of “Because I could not stop for Death,” discussing Dickinson's handling of death and praising her intellectual acceptance of the poem's stark conclusion.]
“Because I could not stop for Death—” is generally acknowledged to be one of ED's most remarkable poems. Allen Tate has gone so far as to state that “If the word ‘great’ means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language” (22). A complicated piece involving several of ED's intricate images and suggesting layers of meanings and mixed themes, the poem has been a favorite target for critics and biographers intent upon unraveling the Dickinson mystery. As Richard B. Sewall points out in Volume 2 of his biography of Dickinson, T.W. Higginson, the first editor and publisher ofher works (along with Mabel Todd), titled the poem “The Chariot,” implying the vehicle that carries people to heaven and, thus, directing readers of his 1890 collection of her works to read the poem in a simple, reductive way as an account of the soul's journey to eternity. (571) More recent critics have, for the most part, rejected the over-simplification of the poem's meaning. Nevertheless, there is still a strong tendency to interpret the work in terms of the...
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“‘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 offered proof of an afterlife. Like her contemporaries, Dickinson extols the dying child as a spiritual guardian, an infant-prophet whose closeness to death makes him peculiarly able to preach to adults. But rather than dwell on an imagined prescience that forms part of its short but spiritually exemplary life, she claims that whatever knowledge of an afterlife the child may gain dies with him. Her sister-in-law Susan's son, Gilbert, for instance, discovers secrets in dying that reach beyond the ken of a living adult:
“Open the Door, open the Door, they are waiting for me,” was Gilbert's sweet command in delirium. Who were waiting for him, all we possess we would give to know—Anguish at last...
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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Herman Melville
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 “mystery of iniquity” in such complexly ironical contexts that the wariest of readers is occasionally baffled. Nevertheless, he kept faith throughout his fiction not only with the gothic vision in general, but with the Faustian theme; creating, along two main lines of descent, a notable series of gothic hero-villains, in each of whom a genuine Faust struggles to be born. The first line of descent begins with Mardi, whose hero, Taji or the Wanderer, none of the customary satisfactions of men can hold: not a union with the image of female purity (Yillah) or absolute passion (Hautia), or even with the Shekhinah, the personified presence of God, whom his companion, Mohi, perceives in a vision.
He presses on past...
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SOURCE: “The Presence of Death in Typee,” Melville Society Extracts, No. 58, May, 1984, pp. 15-16.
[Below, Leonard examines Tommo's attitude toward the Typees in Melville's Typee, noting that his escape from Typee Valley signals his coming to terms with the reality of death.]
During the course of Tommo's stay in the Typee Valley, the problematical reality of death seems to intrude scarcely at all into the consciousness of the savages. When Tommo encounters the effigy of a dead chief “paddling his way to the realms of bliss, and bread-fruit,” he relates a native companion's reaction: “‘A very pleasant place,’ Kory-Kory said it was; ‘but after all, not much pleasanter, he thought, than Typee.’ ‘Did he not then,’ I asked him, ‘wish to accompany the warrior?’ ‘Oh, no: he was very happy where he was; but supposed that some time or other he would go in his own canoe.’”1 For Tommo himself, on the other hand, the impenetrable gravity of death is ever-present. He goes into the valley believing that the Typees are murderous cannibals, finds reason to think that they may have killed and eaten his friend Toby, and fears that he may meet a similar fate. This difference in outlook creates an unalterable barrier between Tommo and the Typees, not only because he is afraid of violence at their hands but also because his pressing concern with death implies a view of...
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SOURCE: “The Suicidal Psycho-Logics of Moby-Dick” Youth 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.”]
CASE HISTORY DATA
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 that are consistent with and advance the main psychological trust and message of the book. After dramatically telling us who the logician is—“Call me Ishmael”—Melville begins the journey with an extended syllogism, called a sorites. First, he summarizes the argument in a rather straightforward and beguiling fashion:
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. (Melville 1972, 93)
But then, Melville-Ishmael becomes...
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SOURCE: “‘Circle-Sailing’: The Eternal Return of Tabooed Grief in Melville's Moby-Dick” in The Grief Taboo in American Literature: Loss and Prolonged Adolescence in Twain, Melville, and Hemingway, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 38-67.
[In the excerpt below, Boker presents a psychoanalytic reading of Melville's motivation in Moby-Dick.She suggests that Melville felt abandoned by his mother and that his art was nourished by “repression, disavowal, and displacement of grief.”]
Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.
—Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has “got over it.” But he will probably have...
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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Edgar Allan Poe
SOURCE: “Guiomar's Poetics of Death in ‘The Raven,’” in Poe Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, December, 1982, pp. 38-40.
[In the following excerpt, Baguley offers a reading of “The Raven” based on Michael Guiomar's Principes d’une esthétique de la mort. According to Baguley, the raven becomes “a harbinger … of irretrievable, even Diabolical or Infernal, destruction” in Poe's poem.]
Few groups of English-speaking critics are more thoroughly informed about critical developments in their field in France than Poe specialists.1 The primary purpose of this article is to make a modest contribution to that longstanding tradition by bringing to the attention of Poe critics and readers a book of which I have found no mention in connection with Poe studies, namely Michael Guiomar's Principes d’une esthétique de la mort.2 Admittedly, even though this book does contain numerous references to the American writer, it does not deal directly with Poe and would thereby seem to merit no more than a mention among the “Fugitive Poe References.” However, as the frequent allusions to Marie Bonaparte, to Jean-Paul Weber, and, in particular, to Gaston Bachelard show, the author is working within a critical tradition which has taken a special interest in Poe. In any case, Guiomar's incisive study of the aesthetics of death has, by the very nature of its topic, an immediate...
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SOURCE: “Poe's Most Poetic Subject” in Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 44-57.
[In the following excerpt from an essay written in 1982, Bessein suggests that Poe's concentration on dead women in his works has negatively influenced later treatments of women in American literature, as well as women's images of themselves.]
Charles Baudelaire pronounced Edgar Allan Poe's attitude toward women chivalric, and scholars have repeatedly done likewise, even within the past three decades, without finding chivalry incompatible with his proclamation that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic subject to be found. Even when seeing his life and works as inextricably bound together, writers generally look upon what they consider his chivalrous approach as the accepted mode for a Southern gentleman and seem to have no special misgivings about his statement on what is suitable subject matter for poetry.1 With a similar blind spot, educators who may condemn extremes in twentieth-century literature and life do not flinch at making Poe's poetry and fiction required reading in our schools. Others who regard death as the ultimate terror find his stories highly entertaining. When looking at Poe's own immediate predecessors and contemporaries, it is obvious that he was not unique in his interest in dead females. Other writers with similar interests...
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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 “pre-adolescent mentality”—to recall the judgment of T. S. Eliot—and concluded that his otherworldly tales amount to little more than gimcrackery. Even those with a scholarly regard for Poe's achievement sometimes assume (as the author invited us to) that mystical elements in the fiction serve mainly to secure the necessary “single effect.” Collectively examined, however, his tales reveal the complex function of the supernatural, which typically introduces the predicament that his protagonists must overcome, escape, explain away, or surrender to. The intrusion of the uncanny generates “cosmic panic” (in Love-craft's phrase) and poses the troubling paradox at the center of Poe's dark vision. Although the preternatural arrives...
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SOURCE: “The Coy Reaper: Unmasque-ing the Red Death,” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 317-20.
[In the following excerpt, Cassuto suggests that Death himself is the narrator in Poe's “The Masque of the Red Death” and explores the thematic implications of this discovery.]
Much has been written about Poe's narrators, and with good reason. Nearly always unnamed—and therefore seen as somehow unreliable—they also have disturbing tendencies that range from the unstable and the obsessed all the way to the insane.1 In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and several other tales, Poe himself even enters into the fiction, commencing the atmosphere of confusion that pervades throughout. All of this indicates that Poe wants us to pay attention to his narrators. If that is his goal, he has succeeded handsomely, but not completely. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a notable exception.2 The story has a narrator unique in the Poe canon. The teller of the tale is Death himself.
Substantiating such a claim must begin with locating a first-person narrator in the story. At first there does not appear to be one, but closer study reveals that an “I” is in fact relating the action. Perhaps no one has remarked upon his presence before because, unlike many of Poe's more overtly bizarre narrators, this one never steps up and...
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SOURCE: “Re-Poe Man: A Problem of Pleasure,”Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 1-26.
[Below, Foster analyzes several of Poe's fictions in the light of the critic's thesis that for the characters in Poe's stories “unpleasure is its own reward.”]
Ordinary fucking people. I hate them. —Repo Man
The plots of poe's stories are too shallow to bury the bodies the needs to cover up. The bodies return, a tell-tale part always there to betray the alibis of his narrators. Roderick Usher's friend happily buries the blushing Madeline; Dupin's sidekick believes the police would really overlook the filthy letter; Legrand's friend in “The Gold-Bug” listens wide-eyed to a story of an ancient cryptographic note found fluttering on the beach. The narrators insist on their own reason and sanity, but they readily put common sense aside. Luckily, we are not such fools. We see the lapses, the riddles, and diddles, and we work at them until we find some way to cover over the limbs that still stick out—or we dig them up.
We like our fictions to end with all accounts squared, in marriage or death, though Poe leans toward the latter. Many of his tales end in imminent death—or even in posthumous narration as in “Ms. Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym—apparently demonstrating the...
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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 inventory—which promises “mutiny,” “atrocious butchery,” “shipwreck,” “horrible sufferings,” “famine,” “capture,” and “massacre,” as well as “incredible adventures and discoveries”—must have amused the author, who well understood the exchange value of sensation (P 1:53). In “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (published a scant four months after the novel's appearance), Poe's fictional magazine editor, Mr. Blackwood, advises the aspiring writer Psyche Zenobia to “pay minute attention to the sensations” because they will be worth “ten guineas a sheet” (M 2:340). Unfortunately for Poe, his grisly novel did not yield so handsome a return, but Pym nevertheless betrays his unrelenting effort to...
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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 popular poem, “The Raven.” At the same time, however, the author also advanced a theory of aesthetics that makes pure poetry contingent on the eradication of female beauty. Through the argument that supports this judgment, Poe exposes a mechanism underlying not only “The Raven” but also several of his related poems; he indirectly comments as well on the fatalistic scheme in a handful of stories about the demise of a lovely, pale lady. Moving between verse and tale over the course of two decades, Poe persistently devised fables of loss that sent females underground, but the conditions and consequences of their erasure vary from poetry to prose in a way suggesting a conflicted response to the beautiful woman's death. In his 1845 essay,...
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Criticism: Death In The Works Of Walt Whitman
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 and wrap you up for the funeral …
Why is there this morbid attitude toward death? In a natural way one does not get rid of people through the back door! If death is nothing but defeat, the end of life, it is not pleasant to look [at the corpse] and think it will happen to them soon.
—Archbishop Anthony Bloom1
Modern man harvests his crops and turns the remains back into the earth; he collects the refuse from his animals and processes it into fertilizer; he collects his own waste, processes it, and returns the effluence, by various means, back to nature; he boxes his own dead, or cremates...
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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, according to one newspaper obituary notice, and he had suffered so many “bad spells,” as Mrs. Whitman called them, that on the day the final attack developed the family was not aware of a critical change in his condition. Walt and two of his brothers, George and Jeff, spent the day away from the house, presumably separately working, until they were bidden home. Walt and Jeff arrived too late, and Mrs. Whitman reported in a letter to her absent daughter in New Hampshire that “they felt very much to blame themselves for not being home but they had no idea of any change.” Mrs. Whitman appears to have remained characteristically placid and encouraging toward her children, while with the same demeanor she projected upon them the burden of...
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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 President Lincoln.” This group title is in fact misleading; there are no “memories” of Lincoln—of his upbringing, character, or actions in office—in the first three printed elegies at all. Only in the last, “This Dust,” first published in 1871 (Second Issue), is it said that Lincoln was “gentle, plain, just and resolute” and that under his “cautious hand” the Union was saved (339). The other three poems, all written in 1865, could well have named Lincoln and attributed to him the preservation of the Union, but they do not. The first of the printed elegies, “Hush’d Be the Camps Today,” dated the day of Lincoln's burial, was composed early enough to be included in Drum-Taps (1865); the other two elegies,...
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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, “his final withdrawal prolonging.” Written in 1887 and situated as the concluding poem in First Annex: Sands at Seventy, this poem clearly concerns the “final withdrawal” from writing and from life. Not surprisingly, as Whitman grew older he exhibited anxiety over conclusions. Yet from the beginning of his career, long before his “final withdrawal” seemed imminent, parting and death were predominant themes in his work. Whitman's insistence on an organic and democratic poetry (in his view, naturally connected) complicates his themes of parting and death, for Whitman was committed to perpetuating this poetry embodying his vision of democracy, not bringing it to conclusion.
Since Whitman viewed his poetry...
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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 me occasionally”; and generally sought to rebuff Symonds's persistent inquiries. Symonds had written:
In your conception of Comradeship, do you contemplate the possible intrusion of those semi-sexual emotions & actions which no doubt do occur between men? I do not ask, whether you approve of them, or regard them as a necessary part of the relation? But I should much like to know whether you are prepared to leave them to the inclinations & the conscience of the individuals concerned?
A mild enough question, but Whitman responded emphatically:
Ab’t the questions on Calamus pieces &c: they quite daze me … that...
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Dobson, Joanne A. “Oh, Susie, it is dangerous”: Emily Dickinson and the Archetype.” In Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, edited by Suzanne Juhasz, pp. 80-97. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Explores Dickinson's understanding and use of the masculine in her poetry. Dobson notes that “in her perception, annihilation, disintegration, alienation, and anguish face her as possibilities in any dealings with the masculine.”
Engel, Bernard F. “Why So Doleful?: The Funereal Poetry of the Early Midwest.” The Old Northwest 7, No. 2 (Summer 1981): 147-59.
Discusses early frontier poetry about death, suggesting that the writers felt death to be a worthy subject and that they reflected deeply on it.
Hockersmith, Thomas E. “‘Into Degreeless Noon’: Time, Consciousness, and Oblivion in Emily Dickinson.” ATQ 3, No. 3 (September 1989): 277-95.
Discusses Dickinson's concept of temporality in her poetry.
O’Keefe, Richard R. “‘Experience’: Emerson on Death.” ATQ 9, No. 2 (June 1995): 119-29.
Argues that in “Experience,” Emerson writes about the death of his son as an “experience which cannot be experienced.”
Pitcher, Edward W. R. “‘To Die Laughing’: Poe's Allusion to Sir Thomas More in ‘The...
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