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

Death in American Literature (Vol. 92)


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.)

Criticism: Death In The Works Of Emily Dickinson

Frances Bzowski (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “A Continuation of the Tradition of the Irony of Death,” in Dickinson Studies, No. 54, Bonus 1984, pp. 33-37.

[In the following essay, 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...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)

Michael Staub (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “A Look at ‘Because I could not stop for Death,’” in 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...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)

Katrina Bachinger (essay date 1985)

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

[In the following essay, 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 1486 words.)

Phillip Stambovsky (essay date 1986)

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

[In the following essay, Stambovsky offers a 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...

(The entire section is 2022 words.)

Barton Levi St. Armand (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “‘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 essay, 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—


“But she's so morbid!” is an often-heard lament from fresh readers of Emily Dickinson's...

(The entire section is 4003 words.)

Paula Hendrickson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “‘Dickinson and the Process of Death,” in Dickinson Studies, No. 77, 1st Half, 1991, pp. 33-43.

[In the following essay, Hendrickson explores Dickinson's curiosity about the moment of death and demonstrates how her poetry appeals to the senses as a means to understanding 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 subcategory of her death poems. In researching this paper, I found nothing which dealt with this topic any further. This is...

(The entire section is 2896 words.)

Lee Winniford (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Disengagement from Process in ED's 712,” in Dickinson Studies, No. 83, 2nd Half, 1992, pp. 38-48.

[In the following essay, 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 [Emily Dickinson'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...

(The entire section is 2846 words.)

Criticism: Death In The Works Of Herman Melville

James S. Leonard (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Presence of Death in Typee,” in Melville Society Extracts, No. 58, May, 1984, pp. 15-16.

[In the following essay, Leonard examines Tommo's attitude toward the Typees in Melville's novel, noting that his escape from Typee Valley signals Tommo's 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...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

Edwin Shneidman (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Suicidal Psycho-Logics of Moby-Dick,” in 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 characterizes 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...

(The entire section is 8004 words.)

Pamela A. Boker (essay date 1996)

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 following excerpt, Boker presents a psychoanalytic reading of Melville's motivation in Moby-Dick,suggesting 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...

(The entire section is 16587 words.)

Criticism: Death In The Works Of Edgar Allan Poe

David Baguley (essay date 1982)

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 long-standing tradition by bringing to the...

(The entire section is 2990 words.)

Beth Ann Bassein (essay date 1982)

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 originally published in 1982, Bassein 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...

(The entire section is 5026 words.)

Leonard Cassuto (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Coy Reaper: Unmasque-ing the Red Death,” in 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,...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Dennis A. Foster (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Re-Poe Man: A Problem of Pleasure,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 1-26.

[In the following essay, Foster analyzes several of Poe's fictions, and argues 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 he needs to cover up. The bodies return, a telltale 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...

(The entire section is 10268 words.)

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 following essay, Kennedy examines Poe's attitude toward women in his fiction; focusing on “Ligeia,” the critic asserts that like his male narrators who recognize their unwitting emotional dependence on women, Poe himself must have resented 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 entire section is 6352 words.)

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,” in Walt Whitman Review, Vol. 27, No, 4, December, 1981, pp. 143-49.

[In the following essay, 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,...

(The entire section is 3326 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 essay, 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...

(The entire section is 6153 words.)

Lance Dean (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘O so loth to depart!’: Whitman's Reluctance to Conclude,” in American Transcendental Quarterly: A Journal of New England Writers, Vol. 7, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 77-90.

[In the following essay, 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...

(The entire section is 6026 words.)

Further Reading


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.

Engel, Bernard F. “Why So Doleful?: The Funereal Poetry of the Early Midwest.” In 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....

(The entire section is 313 words.)