- Death and the American South ed. by Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover
Death is not peculiarly southern, but its shadow touches many iconic aspects of the region's past. From Jamestown's "Starving Time" and the brutal calculus of slave mortality to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and paranormal tourism, death has been a prominent—and sometimes profitable—factor in southern history. The contributors to this insightful volume, which grew from a 2011 conference at North Carolina State University, do not argue for the existence of a single southern way of death. Instead, they explore how death, dying, killing, bereavement, and commemoration have shaped, and been shaped by, the southern past. By attending both to regional distinctiveness and wider historical trends, the authors uncover the layered contexts in which southerners have lived and died. The result is a conceptually focused and, indeed, lively collection, which should inspire future research.
Perhaps the most powerful argument advanced in the volume is that death, dying, and grieving are public acts with political implications. This point is vividly made in two essays on eighteenth-and nineteenth-century "death narratives." These accounts were variously crafted to praise or condemn the deceased but always to instruct the living. Peter N. Moore's study of the religious politics of dying in late colonial South Carolina shows that evangelical ministers, like their Anglican rivals, employed death narratives "to block or advance personal, social, and political agendas" (39). Moore expands on previous studies of normative writings on the art of the good death to explore how contending narratives of actual deaths were used in the factional and denominational politics of a colony wracked by high mortality rates. In her essay on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison's deaths, Lorri Glover analyzes how these luminaries and their descendants consciously constructed death narratives to teach lessons in republican virtue and gentlemanly conduct. These romanticized and occasionally fabricated accounts transformed statesmen into Founders by highlighting their unflinching stoicism, benevolence toward slaves, and clarity of mind. Mid-nineteenth-century interpreters added evangelical embellishments to recreate Enlightenment men in the image of the Second Great Awakening. [End Page 597]
Death also shaped strategies of African-American resistance to racist regimes. Jamie Warren's analysis of the handling of black bodies in the antebellum South shows that conflict between masters and slaves persisted after death, as both groups used corpses "to express social identity, stake claims of family, and navigate the boundaries of slave ownership" (111). Masters might mutilate slaves' corpses to terrify the living, or they might demonstrate their self-proclaimed benevolence by helping slaves rescue loved ones' bodies from scalpel-wielding dissectors. Slaves prepared relatives' bodies for burial, asserting kinship ties that were always fragile in life. For later generations, however, a refusal to claim bodies of lynching victims was a politically powerful act, as Jason Morgan Ward shows in his study of anti-lynching protest in twentieth-century Mississippi. Sadistic murders at Clarke County's "Hanging Bridge" provoked protests in 1918 and 1942, which partially anticipated Mamie Till Bradley's insistence that the world confront the evidence of her son Emmett's brutal death.
Other essays remind us that the southern politics of death have never been simply black and white. Jeff Strickland's study of public policy and yellow fever in late antebellum Charleston underscores connections between ethnicity, immigration, and nativism in a city that was especially deadly to recent arrivals from Germany and Ireland. Craig Thompson Friend and Andrew Denson book-end the volume with insightful interpretations of Native American history. Friend explores the cultural politics of death and mutilation by comparing and contrasting practices of scalping and beheading in the early colonial South. Mangled heads—whether those of white colonists scalped by Indians or black slaves beheaded by white masters—were important symbols in contests over the legitimacy of violence and definitions of civilization and savagery. Denson's essay excavates the layers of memory that have accreted at monuments along the Trail of Tears...