This essay argues that Poe’s tale “The Premature Burial” (1844) offers insight into the radical potential of social death as a basis for cultural expression by satirizing the reliance of liberal, Enlightenment ideals of humanity, progress, and perfectibility on a gothic imaginary. Recently, scholars have suggested that the concept of social death reinforces a predominantly white, elitist historiography by ensuring that the “dead” remain silent. Yet the fact that gothic imaginative modes and liberal historical realities emerged in tandem with one another indicates that social death, while metaphorical, is not a concept artificially mapped onto the nineteenth century. It was woven into the warp and woof of lived experience in the early US. By linking incarceration to slavery, “The Premature Burial”—Poe’s final treatment of the theme of live burial—suggests that the threat of social death may have produced not silent slaves and malleable prisoners but a multitude of voluble, raucous ghosts. This was a hidden potential on which African American writers such as Henry “Box” Brown capitalized, in accounts of escape from the “living tomb” of slavery, shortly after the popular vogue for more literal live burial stories came to an end.


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pp. 32-58
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