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Literary Executions

Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820–1925

Drawing from legal and extralegal discourse but focusing on imaginative literature, Literary Executions examines representations of, responses to, and arguments for and against the death penalty in the United States over the long nineteenth century. John Cyril Barton creates a generative dialogue between artistic relics and legal history. He looks to novels, short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction as well as legislative reports, trial transcripts, legal documents, newspaper and journal articles, treatises, and popular books (like The Record of Crimes, A Defence of Capital Punishment, and The Gallows, the Prison, and the Poor House), all of which were part of the debate over the death penalty.

Barton focuses on several canonical figures—James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lydia Maria Child, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Theodore Dreiser—and offers new readings of their work in light of the death penalty controversy. Barton also gives close attention to a host of then-popular-but-now-forgotten writers—particularly John Neal, Slidell MacKenzie, William Gilmore Simms, Sylvester Judd, and George Lippard—whose work helped shape or was shaped by the influential anti-gallows movement.

Analyzing the tension between sovereignty and social responsibility in a democratic republic, Barton argues that the high stakes of capital punishment dramatize the confrontation between the citizen-subject and sovereign authority in its starkest terms. In bringing together the social and the aesthetic, Barton shows how legal forms informed literary forms and traces the emergence of the modern State in terms of the administration of lawful death.

By engaging the politics and poetics of capital punishment, Literary Executions contends that the movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States should be seen as an important part of the context that brought about the flowering of the American Renaissance during the antebellum period and that influenced literature later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

About the Author

John Cyril Barton is an associate professor of English and director of the Graduate Studies Program at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and coeditor of Transatlantic Sensations.

Reviews

"An essential new effort to examine the link between literary representation and the death penalty in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America—a link that historicist criticism has left surprisingly underexplored in all areas of literary study... Barton's study of the death penalty in American literature is rich and wide-ranging... Because of its very carefully contextualized analysis of a range of authors and their approaches to the death penalty, and because the death penalty is so crucial in political and literary history for all the reasons Barton mentions, his book provides a necessary chapter in the historical analysis of nineteenth century American literature. Any scholars interested in death penalty debates—and perhaps everyone should be—will find their own understanding and research enhanced by the breadth of this book and its attention to nuances among political positions."

- Mark Canuel - Review 19

"A rich account of the formative power that the institution of capital punishment exerted on the construction of the American citizen-subject from colonial times through the 1920s."

- Birte Christ - American Literary History

"Barton certainly succeeds in demonstrating the interconnectedness of law and literature in the campaign to end capital punishment..."

- Journal of American Culture

"Overall, Barton’s Literary Executions is an originally executed and consistently compelling study that resurrects and foregrounds the second abolition movement of the American nineteenth century... Through innovative cross-examinations and nuanced close readings, Barton lays the groundwork for a further and much needed analysis of the real influence wielded by literature in the debate around the abolition of lawful death."

- International Crime Fiction Association

Endorsements

"John Barton provides a masterful account of the literary contributions to debates over the second abolition movement in nineteenth-century America: the campaign against capital punishment. This campaign united pro-slavery writer William Gilmore Simms and anti-slavery writer Lydia Maria Child. It engaged lesser known writers such as John Neal, George Lippard, and Sylvester Judd as well as Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dreiser. Shrewdly analyzing the formal qualities by which different authors execute competing representations of capital crimes in literature, Barton helps explain why a country once at the forefront of this abolition campaign continues to evoke the death sentence."

- Brook Thomas, Chancellor's Professor of English, University of California, Irvine

"John Cyril Barton’s Literary Executions is a well written, deeply informed, and thoroughly documented study of the interrelationships between attempts by social reformers to end capital punishment and treatments by nineteenth-century American authors of executions in their works. Barton clearly illuminates the evolution of arguments for and against the death penalty over the course of the nineteenth century (including the rupture in these arguments caused by the Civil War and its widely approved military executions), and he makes a strong case for the influence of imaginative literature on the popular and legal debates about the death penalty. Distinguished by wide reading, extensive research, and sophisticated interpretations, Barton’s book impresses as an original, sound, and timely contribution to current debates about the barbarous practice of state-authorized executions."

- Larry Reynolds, Texas A&M University

"Impeccably researched and rich with historical detail, Literary Executions examines the figure and theme of the death penalty in imaginative literature from Cooper to Dreiser. John Barton's astute 'cross-examinations' of legal and literary texts illuminate the literary and cultural aspects of the capital punishment debate and show how this debate in turn helped to shape notions of citizenship and state power. Cooper, Child, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville as well as many other less well known authors appear in a surprising new light in Literary Executions."

- Gregg Crane, University of Michigan
Johns Hopkins University Press
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