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Mortal Remains

Death in Early America

Edited by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein

Publication Year: 2012

Mortal Remains introduces new methods of analyzing death and its crucial meanings over a 240-year period, from 1620 to 1860, untangling its influence on other forms of cultural expression, from religion and politics to race relations and the nature of war. In this volume historians and literary scholars join forces to explore how, in a medically primitive and politically evolving environment, mortality became an issue that was inseparable from national self-definition.

Attempting to make sense of their suffering and loss while imagining a future of cultural permanence and spiritual value, early Americans crafted metaphors of death in particular ways that have shaped the national mythology. As the authors show, the American fascination with murder, dismembered bodies, and scenes of death, the allure of angel sightings, the rural cemetery movement, and the enshrinement of George Washington as a saintly father, constituted a distinct sensibility. Moreover, by exploring the idea of the vanishing Indian and the brutality of slavery, the authors demonstrate how a culture of violence and death had an early effect on the American collective consciousness.

Mortal Remains draws on a range of primary sources—from personal diaries and public addresses, satire and accounts of sensational crime—and makes a needed contribution to neglected aspects of cultural history. It illustrates the profound ways in which experiences with death and the imagery associated with it became enmeshed in American society, politics, and culture.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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p. c-c

Title Page, Copyright, Frontispiece

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-14

How is the culturally learned fear of finality explained? That is the essential question behind this book, which began as a symposium titled "Mortal Remains," underwritten by the Mary Frances Barnard Chair endowment at the University of Tulsa and held April 19-22, 2001. Historians and literary scholars met and gave papers on a variety of subjects relating to individual...


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1. The Christian Origins of the Vanishing Indian

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pp. 17-30

The history of the United States is a history of one nation's construction and many native peoples' deaths. Much of American culture is a meditation on this double-edged fact. The fascination with Indians can be seen, then, as a long eulogy, voicing the combined guilt and relief of self-absorbed...

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2. Blood Will Out: Sensationalism, Horror, and the Roots of American Crime Literature

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pp. 31-55

In a culture preoccupied with the proximity of death, early American readers were particularly fascinated by murders and public executions. Although publications on crime and punishment were consistently popular, they changed dramatically in form and content between the late seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Most of the earliest publications...

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3. A Tale of Two Cities: Epidemics and the Rituals of Death in Eighteenth-Century Boston and Philadelphia

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pp. 56-68

In a meditation written in seventeenth-century England, John Donne observed, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . . Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in all mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls...


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4. Death and Satire: Dismembering the Body Politic

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pp. 71-90

Death and the state have something in common: both have been personified as a woman. Satire, too, acquired the metaphorical physique of a female. In his highly influential periodical, The Spectator, Joseph Addison dressed Satire in a feminine guise, writing in 1711: "Satyr had Smiles in her Look, and a Dagger under her Garment."1 During the volatile years of...

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5. Immortalizing the Founding Fathers: The Excesses of Public Eulogy

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pp. 91-107

To this day, few Americans would wish to dispute the view that the hallowed moment of the nation's birth was effected by an uncommon collective intelligence—a genius of such singularity that it has never been repeated since 1776. Our ethicopolitical history is as pampered and polished as the marble statues that inhabit the pillared public buildings of Washington,...

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6. The Politics of Tears: Death in the Early American Novel

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pp. 108-120

Benjamin Franklin is most often identified as a model of success, whose life was a life well lived. Yet in his Autobiography there is a death to be considered as well:

In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 Years old, by the Small Pox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to...


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7. Major André's Exhumation

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pp. 123-135

In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine boldly declared, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Independence from Britain, he insisted, would mark new beginnings and create the possibility of retracing the steps of humanity and avoiding prior errors: "A situation, similar to the...

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8. Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic

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pp. 136-148

Philip Freneau originally titled his popular 1787 poem "Lines occasioned by a visit to an old Indian burying ground." But its serious subject did not preclude a sly play on words. As the poet observed in a footnote, "the North American Indians bury their dead in a sitting posture." Newcomers— "strangers"—to the new American land, particularly its vast interior, took...

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9. A Peculiar Mark of Infamy: Dismemberment, Burial, and Rebelliousness in Slave Societies

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pp. 149-160

As dawn broke on August 20, 1796, Sheriff John Moseby led William Harris, "a notorious thief" and an African American, from the Richmond city jail. A "great crowd of Spectators," white and black alike, had gathered to witness the macabre spectacle. Moseby set about "blindfolding and tying up...


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10. Immortal Messengers: Angels, Gender, and Power in Early America

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pp. 163-175

Angels adorn headstones in cemeteries across America. Their association with death and heaven is conventional. In early American religious history, however, the notion that such supernatural beings could appear on earth was complicated by questions of gender and claims of authenticity. Belief in angels took various forms, reflecting the shifting power of individuals...

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11. "In the Midst of Life we are in Death": Affliction and Religion in Antebellum New York

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pp. 176-186

In February 1830, Amelia Lewis Curtis died at the age of twenty-three in rural Yates County, New York. Amelia's death naturally produced anguish in her father. A teacher in local district schools, John Lewis left a record of the trauma brought on by the loss of his recendy married daughter. His diary records that the day following her death was one "of deep mourning,...

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12. The Romantic Landscape: Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow, and the Rural Cemetery Movement

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pp. 187-204

Romantic ideas about death and landscape shaped antebellum America's solution to the practical problem of urban burial. The rural cemetery proved popular with strollers who appreciated the picturesque setting and varied monuments, a tableau designed to appeal to the sensibilities of the age.1 This important and practical innovation may be traced in the language...


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pp. 205-246

List of Contributors

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pp. 247-248


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pp. 249-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208061
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812218237

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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