Biography 24.4 (2001) 967-970
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One of the most exciting elements of recent work in American Studies has been the careful concentration on often forgotten elements of everyday life, [End Page 967] elements in some cases so evidently common-sensical, so apparently trans-historical, that they have been given little or no attention by scholars seeking to identify greater cultural forms in order to illuminate the past. Such has been the perverse fate of the obituary, which is generally consigned to the realm of the forgettable once its solemn individual work has been done. Remembering the dead has been so much a part of everyday life that only its most concrete public expressions have merited full, book-length treatment. It is not difficult to find studies of public monuments of war casualties, or treatments of funerary rites or styles of mourning in discrete historical periods. But the more colloquial tribute of the obituary has only very recently been addressed comprehensively.
Janice Hume's Obituaries in American Culture studies a broad sample of obituaries from selected periods of American history. Hume's study is organized around samples selected from three eras: she begins her study by examining obituaries from the decades preceding and following Andrew Jackson's presidency, the decades around the Civil War, and the years preceding and following the Depression of the 1920s. Within these broad periods, Hume selects a number of representative obituaries from regionally diverse newspapers and periodicals, analyzing them for what they can tell contemporary readers about the values of various communities. The broader thesis her data serves is how obituaries contribute to what we might think of as a genealogy of public memory. Within each section, Hume attends closely to rhetorical signs of general values (she tracks the occurrence over time of keywords like gallantry, frankness, obedience, etc.), but she also attends carefully to how individual persons were valued within this tight rhetorical form. Central to her study, therefore, is an examination of changes in gender roles as expressed in the highly stylized rhetoric of the obituary. In each of the major sections of her book, Hume provides careful statistical information about the percentages of women, men, and minority subjects who were commemorated in obituaries. These statistics help her to track broad changes in the ways such factors as gender, class, region, occupation, race, religion, and ethnicity were accounted for in the field of public memory.
The great strength of the book lies in its innovation and in the amount of labor Hume has clearly done in the archives. She has examined over eight thousand obituaries, looking closely at the ways they chart out the virtues thateach cultural moment may have believed to be most important. Similarly, the book continues an important trend in American Studies in which previously unexamined artifacts and documents in culture--some of which, as in the case of the obituary, seem to be so ephemeral as hardly to warrant the careful scrutiny Hume gives them--are mined for their ability to shed new light [End Page 968] on particularly complex signifying systems. In this regard, Hume's book is innovative and imaginative, and her reading of the individual texts of the obituaries, as well as the text of the obituary form itself, makes a real contribution to scholars interested in the nineteenth century, in public memory and forms of commemoration, and in the ways in which various print cultures have attempted to situate themselves in and as public discourse.
While Hume's work makes an important contribution to scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it has some weaknesses that an interdisciplinary scholar attracted to the book's subject matter might find somewhat puzzling. For all of its imagination and thorough statistical documentation, Obituaries in American Culture may be slightly frustrating to those accustomed to more theoretically informed work. While Hume is attentive to the social factors that inform the obituary in various historical periods, she...