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Literary Executions

Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820–1925

John Cyril Barton

Publication Year: 2014

Drawing from legal and extralegal discourse but focusing on imaginative literature, Literary Executions examines representations of, responses to, and arguments for and against the death penalty in the United States over the long nineteenth century. John Cyril Barton creates a generative dialogue between artistic relics and legal history. He looks to novels, short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction as well as legislative reports, trial transcripts, legal documents, newspaper and journal articles, treatises, and popular books (like The Record of Crimes, Defence of Capital Punishment, and The Gallows, the Prison, and the Poor House), all of which were part of the debate over the death penalty. Barton focuses on several canonical figures—James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lydia Maria Child, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Theodore Dreiser—and offers new readings of their work in light of the death penalty controversy. Barton also gives close attention to a host of then-popular-but-now-forgotten writers—particularly John Neal, Slidell MacKenzie, William Gilmore Simms, Sylvester Judd, and George Lippard—whose work helped shape or was in turn shaped by the influential anti-gallows movement. Analyzing the tension between sovereignty and social responsibility in a democratic republic, Barton argues that the high stakes of capital punishment dramatize the confrontation between the citizen-subject and sovereign authority in its starkest terms. In bringing together the social and the aesthetic, Barton shows how legal forms informed literary forms and traces the emergence of the modern State in terms of the administration of lawful death. Thus engaging the politics and poetics of capital punishment, Literary Executions contends that the movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States should be seen as an important part of the context that brought about the flowering of the American Renaissance during the antebellum period and that influenced literature from later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book’s groundbreaking research and timely argument will be of value to literary scholars, as well as anyone interested in the intersections among law, culture, and the humanities.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Quote

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-15

This book began as a seminar paper for a course on the death penalty with Jacques Derrida in spring 2000 at the University of California, Irvine. Over the next several years, that essay morphed into a dissertation project directed by Brook Thomas, with Steven Mailloux, J. Hillis Miller, and Dickson D. Bruce serving as committee members. I am grateful for the time and energy that the committee contributed to my work, and I owe a particular debt to Brook Thomas. I cannot imagine a more supportive adviser and mentor than Brook, who not...

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Introduction. The Cultural Rhetoric of Capital Punishment

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pp. 1-25

So begins “Observations on the Curiosity of Those Who Go to Witness Public Executions,” the 1833 preface to The Record of Crimes in the United States, a collection of biographical essays on America’s most notorious criminals that was one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s favorite books.1 Published anonymously but signed “Humanity,” the preface attempts to explain not only why people attend...

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1 Anti-gallows Activism in Antebellum American Law and Literature

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pp. 26-58

Capital punishment has played an important role in American cultural and political life ever since the inception of the United States. During the colonial period and in the early years of the Republic, “Hanging Day” and its concomitant practices— the execution sermon, the condemned’s last words or dying confession, the public spectacle of the execution itself, and official narratives or popular broadsides documenting the event— served to promote religious order and...

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2 Simms, Child, and the Aesthetics of Crime and Punishment

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pp. 59-95

In editing his popular novel Beauchampe for a “New & Revised” edition in 1856, William Gilmore Simms thought anew about “A Murder in a novel.”1 Since Beauchampe was first published in 1842, the literary marketplace had become glutted with fictive accounts and explorations of crime, capital trials, and criminal justice following the revolution in print technology in the early...

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3 Literary Executions in Cooper, Lippard, and Judd

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pp. 96-137

First published at the height of the anti-gallows movement in antebellum America, George Lippard’s massively popular Legends of the Revolution dramatizes several enactments of lawful death. The scene depicts not just any execution but that of Major John André, the infamous British spy whose death George Washington authorized during the Revolutionary War. In narrating the scene, Lippard, like Lydia Maria Child in “Elizabeth Wilson,” moves from the past to...

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4 Hawthorne and the Evidentiary Value of Literature

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pp. 138-173

A loyal Democrat and major player in the “Young America” movement, Nathaniel Hawthorne provides a unique perspective from which to explore the relationship between antebellum literature and capital punishment. As we saw in chapter 1, he made overt statements against the practice in two of his tales from the mid-1840s. In another, “The Hall of Fantasy” (1843), he alluded to death penalty reform and openly praised John L. O’Sullivan for his painstaking efforts...

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5 Melville, MacKenzie, and Military Executions

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pp. 174-224

“Hanging from the beam,”1 John Brown’s body casts a foreboding shadow over Herman Melville’s collection of Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War (1866). “The Portent (1859),” the book’s opening poem, is not about capital punishment per se; nor does it deify Brown (who remains “Weird”) in a way that Hawthorne found regrettable, although its imagery of the “crown” and “streaming beard” connotes the passion and crucifixion of Christ, who also was put to...

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6 Capital Punishment and the Criminal Justice System in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy

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pp. 225-254

First written and revised around 1895 and later in 1899 before being published in Ainslee’s Magazine in 1901, and then further developed in 1917 for his collection Free and Other Stories, Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff” has a complicated composition history not unlike Melville’s Billy Budd.1 And like Billy Budd, “Nigger Jeff” centers around a naive protagonist, Elmer Davies, and culminates in an execution—albeit an extralegal one. Dreiser’s tale, too, is essentially structured...

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Epilogue. “The Death Penalty in Literature”

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pp. 255-270

Published across the Atlantic and almost a century after The Record of Crimes in the United States (1834), whose prefatory “Observations on the Curiosity of Those Who Go to Witness Public Executions” I began this book by discussing, J. W. Hall’s Common Sense and Capital Punishment was first presented as a speech in 1924 before England’s Joint Parliamentary Advisory Council. Hall’s speech, like Humanity’s “Observations” in The Record of Crimes, forced its audience...


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pp. 271-320


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pp. 321-330

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413334
E-ISBN-10: 1421413337
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413327
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413329

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 1 b&w photo
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 881627687
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Literary Executions

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Capital punishment in literature.
  • Executions and executioners in literature.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Capital punishment -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Public opinion -- United States.
  • Capital punishment -- Moral and ethical aspects -- United States -- History.
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