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  • Past Griefs
  • Lara Langer Cohen (bio)

I never imagined I’d write an essay for an academic journal about my pregnancy, and not only because it’s such an excruciatingly intimate topic. It’s professionally inappropriate in a more narrowly historical sense, too: while my field is nineteenth-century literature, my pregnancy was as twenty-first-century as they come. To achieve it, I swallowed innumerable pills, injected myself with various fluids, and monitored my body’s insides with ultrasound imaging. I paid for these things—dearly—with the money I made as a professor, an unimaginable transaction for the women in the books I read and teach.

Yet my pregnancy ended with that most clichéd scene of nineteenth-century American literature: a dead child. In the warped time of grief—the incommensurability of yesterday and today, the evacuation of a future, the dogged presence of the past—this was the most wrenching temporal confusion of all. Mourning is inescapably isolating, but this grief alienated me from my entire present. Dead babies belonged to another century.

In the days that followed, I battened on the only other dead babies I knew: the ones that lined my bookshelves. I did it with shame, silently apologizing to my own dead, for turning away from his memory, and to my intellectual training, for weltering in scenes I knew better than to trust. Every Americanist knows that in nineteenth-century literature, dead children are the height of emotional manipulation, almost always ideologically suspect: obfuscating metaphors for slavery, occasions for performing gentility, fantasy bribes for exploiting the vulnerable, and so on. Still, guided by the scholarship of writers like Mary Louise Kete, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Karla FC Holloway, Max Cavitch, and Dana Luciano in a way I had never anticipated, I burrowed into poems by Lydia Sigourney, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt; essays by Fanny Fern; novels by Frank Webb and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and collections of consolation literature with titles like Echoes of Infant Voices (1849), The Early Dead, or Transplanted Flowers: A Collection of Thoughts Poetical and Scriptural on the Death of Children (1857), and Our Little Ones in Heaven (1858). [End Page 200]

None of the deaths they recounted were exactly like mine. I gave birth at twenty-two weeks, just the wrong side of viability, and the baby only lived a few moments. The problem was that it wasn’t a baby at all; it was a fetus outside my body, an impossible thing. It failed to compute: for months I struggled to explain it to my hospital’s baffled billing office, which charged me for the baby’s “room and board” (the gurney where he failed to breathe?) because I hadn’t enrolled him in my health insurance plan within seventy-two hours, when there was, after all, no longer any “him.” It was no more comprehensible emotionally. Something had died, but what? With the best intentions, family and friends worked to give shape to the death. They offered their condolences on my “pregnancy loss,” or they urged me to “mourn him like a son.” Meanwhile, I silently raged that I had lost more than a pregnancy, but I knew I hadn’t lost a child either; I had never had one. I couldn’t name what I had lost, and as agonizing as that was, somehow I also didn’t want to explain it away. It was true, and in a sense, it was all I had of him. Indistinction was his one distinguishing feature.

I had been drawn to nineteenth-century literature for company in a type of loss all but unknown to those around me. But I found unexpected affinity in its mode of grieving, too. For even as nineteenth-century writers built an entire culture industry around child mortality, the object of their mourning often remained obscure. The most potted sentiments reverberate with a fearful question: what is a dead baby? It is not that these consolatory works fail to console, although in many cases this seems to be true. But for all their eagerness to answer the anguished question why, they often struggle...


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pp. 200-206
Launched on MUSE
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