Study Guide

Death in American Literature

Death in American Literature Essay - Death in American Literature (Vol. 92)

Death in American Literature (Vol. 92)

Introduction

Death in American Literature

Scholars of American literature have pointed out that the theme of death has long pervaded American writings—from early colonial diaries through the nineteenth century—because death was perceived to be an ever-present specter in people's lives. Up until the late eighteenth century, the majority of children born into a family died before reaching adulthood. It is argued that with so many children dying before reaching the age of ten, parent-child relationships were more distant and less sentimental than they are today as a means of preempting the inevitable grief of losing a child. However, as scholars J. Gerald Kennedy, Wendy Simonds, and Barbara Katz Rothman note, the nineteenth century saw child mortality rates drop; along with longer life expectancies and stronger psychological attachments between parents and children came the popularity 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. Other social factors also contributed to this new response to death; with the decline of Calvinism as the main American religion, many people turned to evangelical Christianity, where sentimentality was permitted and grieving women were welcomed.

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 traditional poetic formats, elegies took the shape 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 dear, and even first-person narratives from the point of view of the deceased. 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. Consolation poetry has been characterized 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 female 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, as 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 “clinically dissected … the contradictions of these conventions” through her poetry. Elizabeth A. Petrino focuses on Dickinson's questioning of “the validity of consoling fictions.” Using images drawn from nature, then 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, with 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 unflinchingly deals with the finality of death and offers 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, some critics maintain that Edgar Allan Poe fully embraced it. 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. His writing often reflects his well-known dictum that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic subject for literature. However, 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 examined 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 on both a personal and a social plane. Edwin Shneidman, in his extended discussion of Ahab's psychology 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 Moby Dick. 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 sexuality.

Representative Works

Emily Dickinson
Poems by Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1890
Poems by Emily Dickinson, second series (poetry) 1891
Poems by Emily Dickinson, third series (poetry) 1896
Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1929
Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1935
Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1945
The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. (poetry) 1955

Herman Melville
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. During a Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas (novel) 1846
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (novel) 1851; also published as The Whale (novel) 1851
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (novel) 1852

Edgar Allan Poe
Tamerlane and Other Poems (poetry) 1827
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (poetry) 1829
Poems (poetry) 1831
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym [pseud.] of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude (novel) 1838
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (short stories) 1840
The Raven, and Other Poems (poetry) 1845
Tales by Edgar A. Poe (short stories) 1845

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (novel) 1852

Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass (poetry) 1855, 1856, 1860–61, 1867, 1871, 1876, 1881–82, 1891–92

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Laurence Lerner (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Sentimentality: For and Against,” in Angels and Absences: Child Deaths in the Nineteenth Century, Vanderbilt University Press, 1997, 174-212.

[In the following excerpt, 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...

(The entire section is 1483 words.)