- LITERARY EXECUTIONS: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820–1925 by John Cyril Barton
Midway through his exploration of literary responses to the rancorous spectre of the gallows—that “instrument” of monarchical oppression, and the exercise of undue rights—Barton reproduces a single page of text from Unitarian minister Sylvester Judd’s avowedly anti-gallows novel, Margaret. Bruised by criticisms about his failure to draw a discreet veil over the violence of the execution scene itself, Judd answered his critics by having the printer blot out the relevant paragraph entirely in the revised edition of 1851. That bar of black is startling, reminiscent “of a coffin” or the “dark abyss” (131) that is the opened trap. “Like the so-called private hangings [End Page 162] of condemned criminals behind prison walls, the blackened-out passage served to remind … that readers, as citizens, could no longer see for themselves these public acts. …”(131).
The concept of the ‘“reader citizen”‘ is the silent twin of another formulation central to Barton’s study: that of the “citizen-subject” (5). Over the long nineteenth century the reader-citizen was a potent idea, and it was to that ideal reader, politically acute and possessed of a sentimental education, that antebellum and postbellum authors addressed their evocations of the gallows’ dirty work. That “dramaturgy of the death penalty” as “narrative scaffolding” (264) is central to James Fenimore Cooper’s Ways of the Hour and The Spy and to the complex working of literal, rhetorical, and symbolic scenes of execution in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, all works that Barton treats intelligently, and in depth, to explore the “vexed relationship” (267) between “sovereign authority and responsibility” (4). Barton’s study is strongest here, where it unpacks the trammeled idea of republic where power derived from the people is, at times, used to put those people to death—a problem that exemplifies the tension between citizen (as “sovereign individual” ) and subject (to sovereign power in the exercise of law).
Current trends in the interdisciplinary scholarship of law (law and literature; law and cultural studies) put pressure on the work of the humble article in that formulation. That “and” has been progressively displaced by other words that, like the biblical David, control the Goliaths to either side: cultural studies of law, “literature as law.” This last is closest to what Barton’s study is doing. Early in the book he reminds us (screen generations that we are) of the thoroughgoing cultural power of the literary over the period under study, when “the novel [was] the century’s literary genre most closely connected to popular discourse and public opinion” (6). This is a claim well borne out by the recent work of cultural historians on collective reader experience. In book associations and clubs the great ideas of the day were enthusiastically debated in response to political essays, novels, newspapers, and works of natural history—all standing in equal relation to the civic world. So it was not surprising that a politician and legislator should write to a distinguished novelist to enlist his skills in the battle against capital punishment, as Edward Livingston did in 1829 when he begged Cooper to use his novel power “to impress most forcibly on the mind the truths you may wish to inculcate” for the “abolition of a practice … which outrages humanity” (261). Like Livingston, Barton tends sometimes to give too much determining authority to his authors, and this otherwise excellent work suffers from partialities: from occasionally stranding the execution scene in a work from its wider context in his discussion; from hardly attending to the cultural impact of changing modes of execution (with the exception of his perceptive analysis of the “electric”  prosecutor in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy); and barely taking account of the seductions of the execution as spectacle even to the author taking up pen against its practice. It is worth remembering that Dreiser asked James N. Cain to get him into Sing Sing to see an...