Dark Victories

Americans on the eve of the Civil War were no strangers to death. Life expectancy at birth was forty years, largely because of an infant and child mortality rate nearly ten times as great as today. Most parents had buried at least one child; few young people reached adulthood without the loss of siblings or cousins. Many husbands grieved for wives who had died in childbirth. Fearful epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, and other diseases periodically carried off thousands in the antebellum era. The scourge of “consumption”—tuberculosis—blighted the existence of many in middle age as well as those who had managed to live beyond it.

The ever-present reality or prospect of death created what the historian Mark Schantz calls a “culture of death” to help Americans cope with that reality. No best-selling novel was complete without deathbed scenes that were often deeply sentimental and accompanied by assurances that Christian redemption would transport the departed to heaven. The death of Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most famous example of this genre.

Poetry seemed even more obsessed with the poignancy of death. “Gathering momentum after the publication of William Cullen Bryant’s classic work ‘Thanatopsis’ in 1821,” writes Schantz, “the subject of death became the coin of the realm in the antebellum poetic imagination.” Emily Dickinson “accorded death a prominent place” in hundreds of her poems, including the opening lines in one of her most famous: “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me.” The cemetery movement that followed the successful model of Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston turned traditional graveyards into beautifully landscaped parks where mourners and visitors could contemplate the bliss of eternity. If modern America is, as many critics have noted, “a death-denying culture” that tries to hide the inconvenient fact of dying, according to Schantz, “nineteenth-century America was a death-embracing culture.”

Drew Gilpin Faust would not go that far, although in This Republic of Suffering she contrasts the preoccupation of antebellum Americans with death to our discomfort with the subject today. But while Schantz believes that “antebellum Americans could face death with resignation and even joy because they carried in their hearts and heads a comforting and compelling vision of eternal life,” Faust portrays death, however frequent, as a heart-wrenching experience for both the dying and their surviving loved ones. If there was a “culture of death,” it consisted of rituals to cushion the numbing shock of loss. Faust labels the most important ritual “the concept of the Good Death.” Such a death occurred at home in bed surrounded by family and friends who provided every comfort during the last hours of life. The dying person spoke last words assuring everyone that she or he was ready to depart in peace and to meet them again in the afterlife where the strife and hardships of earthly toil were unknown. “By the 1860s,” Faust writes, “many elements of the Good Death” had been largely “separated from their explicitly theological roots.”…

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