Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820–1925
Publication Year: 2014
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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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...
Introduction. The Cultural Rhetoric of Capital Punishment
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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...
1 Anti-gallows Activism in Antebellum American Law and Literature
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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...
2 Simms, Child, and the Aesthetics of Crime and Punishment
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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...
3 Literary Executions in Cooper, Lippard, and Judd
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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...
4 Hawthorne and the Evidentiary Value of Literature
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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...
5 Melville, MacKenzie, and Military Executions
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“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...
6 Capital Punishment and the Criminal Justice System in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy
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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...
Epilogue. “The Death Penalty in Literature”
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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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Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 1 b&w photo
Publication Year: 2014