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  • Liberty and Death:Fictions of Suicide in the New Republic
  • Katherine Gaudet (bio)

America's earliest novels were full of suicides. William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, often designated the first American novel, includes three. Most of Charles Brockden Brown's fictional works include at least one feigned, considered, or actual suicide. Susanna Rowson included a parable called "The Suicides" in her Invisible Inquisitor. John Davis's Original Letters of Ferdinand and Elisabeth, which I will examine at length, converts a real-life double suicide into a sentimental tale. Of the American novels published before 1820, at least twenty feature suicides— that is, about a quarter of the books.1 What accounts for this fictional obsession, and what does it tell us about the novel's role in early America?

Richard Bell's recent consideration of similar questions offers a compelling narrative. In his account, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther triggered a suicide craze—real as well as fictional—that prompted cultural commentators to reconsider their former advocacy for sentimentalism. If in the 1770s and '80s Americans hoped sentimental novels could be "used to engineer moral reform among young readers," by the turn of the nineteenth century the sentimental appeared too risky a social force ("In Werther's Thrall" 98). Once solicited, sympathetic identification could not be reliably controlled, so even characters who were supposed to be negative examples could drag readers into misguided paths. At the same time, Bell suggests, the post-Revolutionary generation had to deal with real problems-industrialization, urbanization, commercialization—that made sentimentalism look naive. Rejected by social reformers as well as bored young readers, the Wertherian mode of sentimentalism had faded out of American fiction by the middle of the nineteenth century.

This essay offers a complementary explanation of the relationship between suicide and early American fiction. While Bell's account begins with the publication of Werther and ends with its decline in popularity, I engage the transatlantic debates around suicide that developed over the entire [End Page 591] eighteenth century. Goethe may have begun the craze for romantic suicide, but readers of the period would have understood it in terms of a longer history. In this broader context, I argue, suicide stood not only for sentimental excess but also for self-determination. Suspended between these two poles, suicide fiction had something unique to offer Americans of the late eighteenth century. Within the neoclassical rhetoric of the Revolutionary period, suicide could represent the pinnacle of virtue: individual choice at its most disinterested. But as critiques of liberalism have often noted, an ideology that insists on the individual's ability to construct her or his own life fails to account for the economic, social, political, and emotional forces that shape personal experience. Suicide, imaginatively treated, offered a means of addressing the failures of republican ideology.

In both England and America, the eighteenth-century novel and its interlocutors took part in a vibrant public conversation about suicide. The Christian church had long considered killing oneself a sin, but Enlightenment writers questioned why and whether it was wrong, how and if it could be prevented, and what if any right the state had to intervene and punish. As print culture shifted toward the secular, suicide became a popular topic for debate. The most prominent Anglo-American writers—John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush—as well as the anonymous and more obscure writers of newspapers, broadsheets, and plays weighed in with opinions and anecdotes about suicide. Over the century the meaning of suicide changed. In 1700 both English and American law treated suicide as a crime, resulting in confiscation of the deceased's property, refusal of Christian burial, and even mutilation of the body. By the nineteenth century suicide had begun to be treated as a medical problem, a tragic symptom of melancholy rather than a criminal act.

As we will see, American law ran ahead of the English in decriminalizing suicide. This difference, I argue, reflects the ideology of a Revolutionary culture that promoted classical concepts of voluntary action and personal choice over state and religious controls on death. But the emphasis on self-determination, so important to republican theory, sorted ill with...