With this book, Alan Swedlund enters a longstanding and ongoing discussion among historians about the cultural meaning and historical experience of death. The lens of death has been particularly helpful for historians interested in uncovering how everyday historical actors [End Page 406] understood and made sense of the body, the spirit and, indeed, the self. Inspired by the seminal work of Philippe Ariès, historians of the last four decades have developed creative and sophisticated analyses on how an experience as common and universal as death has changed significantly over time and place. As Erik Seeman has noted, if we want to understand how a people lived, we must begin by asking how they died.
Swedlund's analysis pivots on a local focus as he attempts to explain how the experience of sickness, death, and grief changed throughout the long nineteenth century in the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. This book relies on a combination of institutional and personal records, ranging from annual reports from the Massachusetts Board of Health to private journals and letters of everyday folks. Swedlund's aim is to situate the personal experience of dying and loss in a broader context of shifting medical knowledge, changing patterns of disease, increasing industrialization, and the professionalization of death work, such as the emergence of undertakers, embalmment, and funeral homes in the late nineteenth century. These themes will be familiar to historians of death in America, as will the chronological framing of the author's questions. Indeed, this work might best be read as an introductory overview of the types of questions historians of death have asked and the varied approaches scholars such as Charles Rosenberg, James Farrell, and Sheila Rothman have employed. The value of this work lies in Swedlund's sustained focus on one locale, allowing the broad focus of the book to remain anchored by inhabitants of Deerfield. Additionally, scholars interested in demographic data relating to health, illness, and mortality rates among various groups will find Swedlund's research, presented clearly in an appendix, quite helpful.
However, those interested in a new understanding of the culture of death and loss in America will find this study lacking. Swedlund states early on his intentions to go beyond a top-down approach, which might privilege institutional evidence and hard data, to analyze and unpack the human experience of grief and loss. Yet, this is precisely [End Page 407] where this study fails to take shape. Personal texts on loss are delivered to the reader in long, undigested block quotes. Swedlund should be commended for his ability to draw together a wide variety of sources and arrive at a cohesive narrative, yet his historical analysis of death and emotion remains a bit shallow. Important categories of analysis central to the experience of death in nineteenth-century America, such as gender and class, are given cursory and problematic attention. Indeed, some will find his use of gender, such as his chapter titled "Reproductive Women, Productive Men," troubling. This book begins by promising a history that will integrate "events of illness and death with the emotional and social response to loss" (p. 4). Yet it is difficult to locate a sustained and clear historical argument in Swedlund's chapters. Historical forces such as war and immigration simply appear then fade from the author's (and the reader's) view. While Swedlund wants to argue that death and loss were different in the past than they are now (a claim with which this reviewer agrees), this book, unfortunately fails to strongly link human experience to historical and social changes.
Jamie Warren is a PhD candidate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where she is writing her dissertation on death and slavery in the antebellum American South. While she is currently writing fulltime, she was previously an editorial assistant at the American Historical Review.