- In Werther's Thrall:Suicide and the Power of Sentimental Reading in Early National America
Setting down the novel for the final time, he raised the horse pistol to his temple and fired. Beachcombers found his young, "genteely dressed" body early the next morning; the book and the gun lying together on the ground by its side. Three years earlier, in 1804, Alexander Hamilton's blood had pooled among the dirt and rocks on this same stretch of the New Jersey shore. Like Hamilton this man was an immigrant and like Hamilton he had been behaving strangely in the weeks before his death, telling friends that he was tired of life and ready to die. But this man had his own story, as the two letters tucked in his pocket and the novel found at his feet soon made clear. His name was Bertell, he was just twenty years old, and the first letter was his suicide note, addressed to whoever might find his body. It described how he had been cast aside by the young lady he loved, how the rejection had been too much for his heart to take, and how he had made up his mind that he could only find peace in death. In the second letter he had scribbled a hasty will, leaving two-thirds of his paltry estate to the girl who had broken his heart. The third text on the scene was the book that Bertell had been reading over and over for weeks now. To readers of all the news stories that spread word of his suicide, this well-thumbed and heavily underlined little volume was the most important clue as to why this young romantic had taken his own life. Bertell's copy of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, the most popular and yet most vilified sentimental novel in America, lay open at the page where Werther, pistols prepared, writes to the woman who has promised herself to another and takes his final leave: "They are loaded—the clock strikes twelve—I go. Charlotte! Farewell! Farewell!" (70).1
Fiction, it seemed, could be fatal. Reading Goethe's inflammatory tale of how one adoring young man ended his anguish by pistol had led another [End Page 93] to do the same. At least that was the conclusion many newspaper readers reached when printers from Vermont to Virginia splashed this young German immigrant's story across their pages in the summer of 1807. In fact, Bertell's suicide came as the inevitable proof of what protective parents and anxious ministers had been warning would happen ever since Goethe's overwrought romance first reached American shores in the 1780s, the latest in a post-Revolutionary deluge of sentimental new fiction aimed squarely at the rising generation.
This essay examines why so many adults found it useful to claim that stories like Werther's could steer suggestible young readers toward copycat suicide. It recovers how and why so many parents and preachers—men and women who had embraced the possibilities of sentimental reading in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution—later came to cultivate such a bitter suspicion of the sentimental novels and short stories popular among early national teenage readers. As more and more mothers, fathers, and ministers concluded that sentimental literature was a potent but entirely unreliable partner in the cause of adolescent moral education, many began to denounce such fiction as morally corrosive, dangerous nonsense that could do far more harm than good. Here I endeavor to explain the reasons why this onslaught of criticism came to center upon the Werther effect—the term contemporary sociologists still use when debating the enduring claim that reading about suicide can influence the decision to commit it. Seizing on the fact that Werther and a swath of early American novels that followed in its wake each put the suicides of tremulous and tearful young characters front and center, critics of sentimental fiction pointed to suggestive (yet ultimately circumstantial) evidence that young readers like Bertell were being manipulated by the power of sympathy to follow in the fatal footsteps of those about whom they read. Their motivation, I argue, was to...