- American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman
Literary history has not been kind to elegy. Although poems lamenting the passing of private family members and public figures once claimed a wide readership, to modern ears the genre often seems bogged down by formulaic expressions, redundancy, and trite sentimentality. After the waning of eighteenth-century Puritanism, verses written to commemorate the loss of wives, husbands, and children still flowed from pens of the grief-stricken, but these heartfelt expressions also became grist for the satiric mill of writers such as Mark Twain, who in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn famously ridiculed a teenage elegist who "didn't have to stop to think" as she raced to beat the undertaker in memorializing the dead.
Given this weighty opposition, it is understandable that Max Cavitch begins his expansive and impressively researched study of American elegies somewhat defensively. Elegies are significant, he insists, because they constitute an important but overlooked genre in the arts of national remembrance, informing survivors about departed ministers, statesmen, spouses, infants only a few days old, slaves: that is, about both the famous and the obscure. But rather than meet each and every charge about elegy's lack of originality or its unimaginative adherence to convention, Cavitch instead takes the clever tack of accepting—and then inverting—the prevailing wisdom that lumps together the diverse array of poetic mourning as a genre. Paralleling the work of genre and the work of mourning, he understands the classification of elegy as a pragmatic means of remembering the historical processes that contribute to and sustain the genre's conventional aspects. For Cavitch, this dynamic history opens out onto a long tradition of elegy, which moves from a starting point of Cotton Mather, Anne Bradstreet, and other Puritans to a patient reading of Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
These chapters provide the bookends to a sustained investigation of elegy's public role in building communities that range from assemblies of the Puritan faithful to the nation itself. In between, there is fascinating material that emerges courtesy of Cavitch's archival work in unearthing a corpus of African American elegy that stretches from Phillis Wheatley's memorial of George Whitefield to George Moses Horton's poems on Mary Todd Lincoln's inconsolable grief. Wheatley, of course, was the source of famous examples of mourning poetry, but she was also the occasion—via her death—for others to compose verses about "a late celebrated Poetess" (191). Cavitch reminds us that the dead of her elegies were presumably white, and so he goes on a search to discover the first black elegy for a black subject. The result is an 1810 elegy for a slave named Mary Henery in which the reliance on generic conventions corresponds to an effort to "transcend racial difference" (185). [End Page 123] Conventions can be surprising and even unconventional, no more so than in the tradition of African American mourning poetry. By examining lost or understudied examples, this section of American Elegy has the potential to alter the makeup of what typically appears as required reading for the ubiquitous introductory course in American Literature.
Yet, the tradition that Cavitch establishes is helpfully neither smooth nor seamless: pieces such as Abraham Lincoln's "The Suicide Soliloquy" (a poem submitted to an Illinois newspaper when the future president was not yet thirty years old) as well as the vicarious anguish that white antislavery poets imagined for fictional slave suicides interrupt the collected oeuvre of African American elegy. If Cavitch's recovery of poetic expressions of African American grief substantially amplifies the history of elegy, the book also challenges notions as to what sort of articulations count as elegy in the first place. Not just verse but the prose of sadness figures prominently in this study, as Cavitch includes works such as W. E. B. DuBois's and Ralph Waldo Emerson's respective essayistic meditations on the death of a son.
Even in the context of Emerson...