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Against the Gallows

Antebellum American Writers and the Movement to Abolish Capital Punishment

Paul Christian Jones

Publication Year: 2011

In Against the Gallows, Paul Christian Jones explores the intriguing cooperation of America’s writers—including major figures such as Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Herman Melville—with reformers, politicians, clergymen, and periodical editors who attempted to end the practice of capital punishment in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. In an age of passionate reform efforts, the antigallows movement enjoyed broad popularity, waging its campaign in legislatures, pulpits, newspapers, and literary journals.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book emerged out of my reading for a different project, as I was attempting methodically to work my way through the many novels of E. D. E. N. Southworth. As I repeatedly came upon anti–capital punishment subplots and incidents in novel after novel, my curiosity led me to look for a context within which to understand Southworth’s...

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Chapter One | Haunted by the Gallows: Antebellum American Literature and Capital Punishment

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pp. 1-33

The gallows haunted American literature during the 1840s, looming horrifically as a sinister presence in the pages of a wide spectrum of texts. From ominous gothic tales to sentimental didactic stories, from doggerel lines of popular ballad verse to the refined prose of the sermons of the nation’s esteemed ministers, from cheap pamphlet fiction produced by ...

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Chapter Two | The Politics of Poetry: The Democratic Review and Anti-Gallows Verse in 1840s America

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pp. 34-64

In March 1842, the United States Magazine and Democratic Review published a sixteen-page attack on William Wordsworth’s most recent publication, Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death , a sequence that argued for the preservation of capital punishment in England. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic expressed disappointment that a poet of Wordsworth’s ...

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Chapter Three | The American Newgate Novel: Amtebellum Crime Fiction and Anti-Gallows Sympathy

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pp. 65-94

The Democratic Review urged America’s writers to refuse to “follow feebly” British literary tradition because of its conviction that this literature was the product of “an utterly anti-democratic social system,” which held a “peculiar affection” for “the Death Punishment” (O’Sullivan, “Capital Punishment” 424, and “Introduction” 14–15). However, the extreme nationalist...

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Chapter Four | Walt Whitman’s Anti-Gallows Writing: The Appeal to Christian Sympathy

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pp. 95-122

Walt Whitman’s writing career began amidst the environment of heated debate about the death penalty in the 1840s. However, his involvement in the anti–capital punishment movement has received little attention in Whitman scholarship, which has failed to recognize it as having relevance to his later work, the poetry of Leaves of Grass. If acknowledged at all, ...

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Chapter Five | Women’s Anti-Gallows Writing: The Sentimental Strategy of E.D.E.N. Southworth

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pp. 134-159

It is quite likely that the popular female author E. D. E. N. Southworth wrote more about the death penalty than any other American novelist in the nineteenth century, yet her interest in this issue has gone unacknowledged in literary studies. In many of her best-selling works, Southworth offers her readers plots that illustrate the injustice, immorality, and inefficacy...

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Chapter Six | Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: The Legacy of Antebellum Anti-Gallows Literature

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pp. 160-181

Although Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor did not appear until 1924, when it was discovered during the Melville revival that established the author as a fixture in the canon of American literature, its depiction of the execution of “the Handsome Sailor” Billy Budd aboard the British vessel HMS Bellipotent has become the most famous and most discussed representation...


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pp. 183-203


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pp. 205-222


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pp. 223-230

E-ISBN-13: 9781609380496
E-ISBN-10: 1609380495
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609380489
Print-ISBN-10: 1609380487

Page Count: 242
Illustrations: N/A
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: first