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  • "I have not told half we suffered":Overland Trail Women's Narratives and the Genre of Suppressed Textual Mourning
  • Carey R. Voeller

Many literary critics have noted a distinct genre of ritualized texts about mourning in Victorian America. Authors such as Lydia Sigourney, Fanny Longfellow, and Frances Osgood, for example, inscribe an image of mourning that is excessive, sentimentalized, and embedded within an aspiration toward middle-class, genteel society. Yet, as this essay will show, this excessive, textualized, ritualized grief was but one of a number of strategies that women used to write about loss. Nineteenth-century diaries and letters written by women bound for the West on the Overland Trail represent grief in an equally ritualized fashion. These writers repeatedly suppress and minimize grief over the deaths of husbands, children, and friends in order to construct an image of westering women as tough, durable, and forever moving forward. However, this alternative, but equally ritualized, pattern of textual mourning becomes apparent only when we read the gaps and silences of these women's narratives.

Generic Differences: Women Writers and the Details of Textual Production

What might account for these different textual representations of bereavement? The specific details of textual production—when and how a text is produced and for whom—impact the way genres evolve. So the actual circumstances of slowly composing a poem at home, as time and leisure allow, versus quickly inscribing the day's events in a diary or letter along the Overland Trail may produce significant differences in the category and type of text that results.1 Women in settled communities would have different outlets for grief than women who penned narratives in environments where they often lacked the time, materials, and rituals that mark—and mitigate—grief in more settled communities.

Questions of audience play an important role in any text's production. For example, as Sandra Zagarell notes, Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney wrote for a large audience and for "popular consumption" (2681). Her writings, as did those of many other middle-class writers in the antebellum period, helped contribute to the popular phenomenon of the sentimental cult of mourning—or, as Ann Douglas calls it, "the domestication of death" (200). Their texts, like Victorian practices of keeping locks of hair, daguerreotypes of deceased infants, death masks, and other mementos, arguably helped preserve, even immortalize, the departed. As Gary Laderman points out, these mourning rituals also were part of the bourgeois ideologies of grieving families (39–41). Likewise, Elizabeth A. Petrino maintains that [End Page 148] sentimental writers tailored their poems of motherhood, death, and Heaven (often portrayed as a domestic, "actual place") to readers with "middle-class aspirations to [gentility]"; thus the texts, for both writers and readers, "reaffirmed social position" and "[reflected] the coalescence of Victorian sentimentalism with bourgeois aspirations" (320). In settled, class-based, well-to-do communities, the deceased often served as a permanent "centerpiece" of sorts, whether as the subject of a text or as the focus of photographs, a death mask, or similar mementos. The presence of the text or material artifact encouraged readers, family, and friends to gather around and to grieve openly and sometimes excessively. Thus, the grieving ritual ultimately reinforced middle-class identity and community.

In addition to contributing to the culture of sentiment and its class-based underpinnings, New England writers also created ideologically appropriate models of maternal and textual grieving for a national audience. According to Cathy Davidson, technological advancements in the printing press after the Revolution, coupled with an increasing public demand for written material, meant that by 1830 texts—especially novels—often were produced in press runs of as many as thirty thousand copies (17). Authors within this burgeoning print culture reached a much larger readership than did women on the Overland Trail. Sarah Robbins reports that domestic poetry and prose by authors such as Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick helped "support American mothers' astute management of domestic literacy and, hence, of national civic values" (572). In fact, these New England writers attempted to train mothers as educators of their children and as "national" mothers, but their sentimental elegies for dead children also taught "national" mothers how to grieve...


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pp. 148-162
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