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American Elegy

The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman

Max Cavitch

Publication Year: 2007

The most widely practiced and read form of verse in America, “elegies are poems about being left behind,” writes Max Cavitch. American Elegy is the history of a diverse people’s poetic experience of mourning and of mortality’s profound challenge to creative living. By telling this history in political, psychological, and aesthetic terms, American Elegy powerfully reconnects the study of early American poetry to the broadest currents of literary and cultural criticism.Cavitch begins by considering eighteenth-century elegists such as Franklin, Bradstreet, Mather, Wheatley, Freneau, and Annis Stockton, highlighting their defiance of boundaries—between public and private, male and female, rational and sentimental—and demonstrating how closely intertwined the work of mourning and the work of nationalism were in the revolutionary era. He then turns to elegy’s adaptations during the market-driven Jacksonian age, including more obliquely elegiac poems like those of William Cullen Bryant and the popular child elegies of Emerson, Lydia Sigourney, and others. Devoting unprecedented attention to the early African-American elegy, Cavitch discusses poems written by free blacks and slaves, as well as white abolitionists, seeing in them the development of an African-American genealogical imagination. In addition to a major new reading of Whitman’s great elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Cavitch takes up less familiar passages from Whitman as well as Melville’s and Lazarus’s poems following Lincoln’s death. American Elegy offers critical and often poignant insights into the place of mourning in American culture. Cavitch examines literary responses to historical events—such as the American Revolution, Native American removal, African-American slavery, and the Civil War—and illuminates the states of loss, hope, desire, and love in American studies today. Max Cavitch is assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

To own the debts accrued in writing this book is delightful. Michael Warner was the first, best reader of many of these pages. Countless felicities of thought and expression are his, and the value of the ex ample he has set for the conduct of life is similarly incalculable. Richard...

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Introduction: Leaving Poetry Behind

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pp. 1-32

Elegies are poems about being left behind. They are poems, too, that are themselves left behind, as literary and even material legacies. Their heritage helps constitute the “work” (both process and artifact) of mourning—a form of psychic labor that is also fundamental...

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1. Legacy and Revision in Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Elegy

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pp. 33-79

Until the eighteenth century, the history of American elegy was by and large a function of Puritan resource and resolve. The funeral elegy, adopted from their English counterparts by New England Puritans in the 1640s, was practiced assiduously for almost a century, constituting...

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2. Elegy and the Subject of National Mourning

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pp. 80-107

By 1799, the young nation had already caught dramatic glimpses of itself in the mirror of mourning. From the start of the Revolutionary War to the end of the century, the deaths of soldiers, patriot noncombatants, illustrious citizens, and noncitizen subjects had inspired a wealth...

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3. Taking Care of the Dead: Custodianship and Opposition in Antebellum Elegy

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pp. 108-142

Elegy continued to be a popular and widely practiced genre in nineteenth-century America in part because of its traditional role in helping to sustain the idealizations to which mourning is characteristically devoted. These include the idealization of the...

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4. Elegy's Child: Waldo Emerson and the Price of Generation

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pp. 143-179

Because the practice of elegy is fundamentally devoted to the enshrinement of compensatory memory, and thus to a complaint or grievance against the present, elegists frequently seek to project a future that would transcend elegiac salvos of resentment—a future, in other words,...

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5. Mourning of the Disprized: African Americans and Elegy from Wheatley to Lincoln

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pp. 180-232

As part of the mourning culture of black Americans, elegy was also part of the racialized drama of sorrow and resistance that characterized American culture more generally and that took shape in related genres like the eulogy, the funeral sermon, the spiritual, and even the minstrel...

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6. Retrievements out of the Night: Whitman and the Future of Elegy

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pp. 233-285

On a November evening in 1888, during one of his innumerable visits to Walt Whitman’s Mickle Street home in Camden, New Jersey, Horace Traubel noticed something he had not seen before. “I stopped at the mantelpiece,” he writes,...

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Afterword: Objects

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pp. 286-293

On March 26, 1892, Whitman’s death unleashed waves of sorrow, relief, anxiety, and other forms of libidinal expressivity. His survivors caressed and kissed him with their good-byes. They made casts of his face and hands. They washed his body and prepared it for viewing and for burial....


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pp. 295-333


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pp. 335-352

E-ISBN-13: 9780816698851
E-ISBN-10: 0816698856
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816648931

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: First edition

OCLC Number: 172371207
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Elegy

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Subject Headings

  • Elegiac poetry, American -- History and criticism.
  • American poetry -- History and criticism.
  • Mourning customs in literature.
  • Grief in literature.
  • Death in literature.
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