The fourteen essays in Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Writing and Culture explore ways in which the violent and traumatic nature of America has come to generate its unique forms of literary and cultural haunting. As the editor Lucy E. Frank notes in her introduction, "America's extreme repertoire of death images both conjures up and attempts to contain some of the nations profoundest anxieties and contradictions" (6). Starting point for many of the contributions is the relationship between the dead and the natural body politic. One is reminded of George Romero films about the living dead, in which the zombies serve as a cipher for those deemed to be non-citizens and therefore socially dead before their actual demise. It is, thus, one of the scholarly merits of this volume that it offers the historic precursors to this staple in the American cultural imaginary. Why a nation, built on a religious, political and economic promise of a new life for those who took upon themselves the challenge of emigration should have come to be so obsessed with death is not something these essays address. Instead, what they compellingly illustrate is that an engagement with death and its after-effects is not something specifically modern, but rather functions as the measure for the way American culture has always thought about itself.
A seminal contradiction for much of America's dealings with death is outlined by John J. Kucich in relation to the literary afterlife of Chief Seattle's speech on the shores of Puget Sound. Invoking the supernatural staying power of ghosts, his words predicted the resilient claim the Indians would continue to have on the living in a text seemingly about the threat of their demise. Equally focused on the question of a more general cultural repression that was far from successful, Jeffrey Steele presents African-American narratives by the survivors of slavery in light of the way these transform particular grief into stories that address a more general political grievance. But the question of spectral afterlife equally applies, as Dana Luciano shows, to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. As an icon of collective sadness, President Lincoln embodied the "as-yet-unfulfilled realization of democracy's promise," more precisely a claim on the future, "that demands further progress toward national goals as compensation for historical losses suffered in their name" (45).
If the dead return in literary texts to remind the living of their failure to live up to the democratic ideals of the American Dream, haunting is also linked to sentimentality as one of the most powerful aesthetic attitudes of 19th century culture. Though the essays do not take on the question why the sentimental mode came to adapt itself so fruitfully to America's need to take responsibility for its dead, what they do offer is an insight into the richness of the material revolving around this ambivalent articulation of mourning. A moribund fascination with infant mortality produced an entire industry, including anthologies of child-elegies and post-mortem photographs. Other sites of articulation for a sentimental consumption of death were the fashion industry, theatrical stagings of ghost illusions, as well as mesmerism as a persistent literary theme. Yet, as Elizabeth Carolyn Miller suggests, Edgar Allen Poe used the genre of crime fiction precisely to critique the proclivity of his fellow citizens to sensationalize death. What one thus comes to recognize, as one moves through this richly suggestive collection of essays, is that America's obsession with death is not merely a curious detail. Rather, this resilient conversation with the dead emerges as a dominant force, which continues to haunt us even today. [End Page 158]
University of Zurich (Switzerland)
Copyright © 2009 Mid-America American Studies Association
Haunted America, the Value of History Essay
632 Words3 Pages
In the essay Haunted America, Patricia Nelson Limerick ponders whether or not there is any benefit for society to have historical knowledge. Limerick contradicts herself numerous times in her opinion on the usefulness of history. She implies that there are many lessons that can be learned from history. However, Limerick is disappointed in the human race because it fails to learn from the mistakes of others. She therefore wonders, "What do we gain besides a revival and restoration of the misery?" (Limerick, 473). Based on Limerick's examination of people and history, one can conclude that objectively history is useless, however, theoretically, people would be much better off if they learned from the lessons that the past presents.
To an…show more content…
Torture, maiming, rape, mutilation, murder - all of the worst injuries that human being inflict on each other serve as the capstones to these stories" (472). Therefore, history is somewhat detrimental to society because people start viewing each other as cruel, egotistical enemies. When analyzing the Battle of Bad Axe, Limerick wonders what good the memory of such a dreadful event can do. She asks, "What good can knowledge of this miserable story do? [...] What exactly does knowledge of this event add to American self-understanding and well-being?" (473).
To answer Limerick's question, one might state that objectively, the knowledge of appalling occurrences is futile because people do not learn from the past mistakes. This is evident when comparing the Indian-white and the Vietnam wars. The two wars are very similar in that they are both guerrilla war, in which the insider has a greater advantage over the intruder. Limerick writes, "The lessons of the Indian-white wars and the lessons of the Vietnam war were strikingly similar because they were both the lessons of guerrilla war, the kind of war in which the local, insider knowledge held by natives gave them a great advantage. The invaders, by contrast, were decidedly out of their place" (488). Intruders are at a greater disadvantage