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Obituaries in American Culture

Janice Hume

Publication Year: 2000

What obituaries tell us about our culture, past and present

"Within the short period of a year she was a bride, a beloved wife and companion, a mother, a corpse," reported The National Intelligencer on the death of Elizabeth Buchanan in 1838.

Such obituaries fascinate us. Few of us realize that, when examined historically, they can reveal not only information about the departed but also much about American culture and about who and what we value. They also offer hints about the way Americans view death.

This book also will fascinate, for it surveys more than 8,000 newspaper obituaries from 1818 to 1930 to show what they reveal about our culture. It shows how, in memorializing individual citizens, obituaries make a public expression of our values. Far from being staid or morbid, these death notices offer a lively look at a changing America. Indeed, obits are little windows through which to view America's cultural history.

In the nineteenth century, they spoke of a person's character, in the twentieth of a person's work and wealth. In the days when women were valued mainly in their relationships with men, their obituaries were about the men in their lives. Then, as now, important friendships make a difference, for sometimes a death has been deemed newsworthy only because of whom the deceased knew.

In 1838 when a 50-year-old Virginian named William P. Custis died "after a long and wasting illness," readers of The Daily National Intelligencer learned about his generous hospitality, his sterling business principles, and his kindness as a neighbor and husband. Custis's obituary not only recorded the fact of his death but also celebrated his virtues.

The newspaper obituary has a commemorative role. It distills the essence of a citizen's life, and it reflects what society values and wants to remember about the deceased. Throughout our history, these published accounts have revealed changing values. They provide a link between public remembrances of individuals and the collective memory of a great American past. In obits of yesteryear men were brave, gallant, vigilant, bold, honest, and dutiful. Women were patient, resigned, obedient, affectionate, amiable, pious, gentle, virtuous, tender, and useful.

Mining newspapers of New York City, New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, and San Francisco, along with two early national papers, Niles' Weekly Register and The National Intelligencer, Janice Hume has produced a portrait of America, an entertaining history, and a revealing look at the things Americans have valued.

Janice Hume is an assistant professor at the A. Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Cover/Title Page/Copyright

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pp. 5-6

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pp. 7-9

Special thanks to Professor Betty Houchin Winfield of the University of Missouri School of Journalism for her invaluable guidance. Thanks also to MU Professors John Merrill, Lee Wilkins, Robert Collins, and Steven Watts and Kansas State University Professor Paul Parsons for their expertise and support. ...

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A Record for Public Memory

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pp. 10-25

When fifty-year-old Virginian William P. Custis died "after a long and wasting illness" in 1838, readers of the Daily National Intelligencer learned about his generous hospitality, his sterling business principles, and his kindness as a neighbor and husband. ...

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The Egalitarian Life

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pp. 26-51

Andrew Jackson's 1828 election to the presidency represented a political and cultural turning point in American history.1 Though social trends associated with the Jacksonian era, especially Americans' concern with equality and reform, grew from changes in both industry and government, they were personified in the new president. ...

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Death in the Civil War Era

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pp. 52-91

The Civil War was the most dramatic event of the nineteenth century and arguably remains one of the most important cultural and political influences in American history. America emerged from the war not merely as a confederation of states but as a nation with a strong central government, well entrenched in the industrial era. ...

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A New Century

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pp. 92-127

As the United States moved from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, the nation's social structures shifted, affecting the lives and the character of citizens. By the end of the 1920s Americans had changed spiritually, culturally, economically, and politically.1 ...

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The Forgotten Dead

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pp. 128-147

If Aristotle had been an obituary writer, he likely would have written about the deceased's strongest virtues and forgotten his or her occasional moral transgressions. Aristotle wrote of the constancy of virtues, that they do not follow changes of fortune but should be accessories of a person's life as a whole. ...

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"In the Midst of Life"

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pp. 148-164

The Daily National Intelligencer's obituary for William Custis, the JL "noble, independent and honest" Virginia businessman who died in 1838, served multiple purposes. It informed newspaper readers of Custis's death, recalled what was deemed worthy about his life, and served as a model ...


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pp. 165-183


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pp. 184-190


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pp. 191-198

E-ISBN-13: 9781621035862
E-ISBN-10: 157806242X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578062423

Publication Year: 2000

OCLC Number: 812911749
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