Review: Desirée Henderson, Grief and Genre in American Literature, 1790-1870

(Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate, 2011)

Dara Downey

University College Dublin

“[…] the many genres of grief underscore the magnitude of the challenge of making death meaningful, as the unique and individual nature of loss runs up against the dominant conventions that shape memorial traditions and practices” (4).

As Desirée Henderson implicitly acknowledges in this quotation, the sheer scale and variety of the body of mourning literature produced in nineteenth-century America alone makes the work of the academic seeking to document and understand it a particularly daunting one.  What she argues more explicitly here, and throughout Grief and Genre in American Literature, 1790-1870, is that this body of literature itself had a near-Herculean task to perform in attempting to give voice to the silence of the grave, to sketch for mortal eyes sights accessible only to those who have left the mortal realm forever.  Faced with the impossibility of representing a place or state that was testified to by belief rather than knowledge, the various forms which mourning literature took in nineteenth-century America struggled, like the doubt-addled Protestants who formed its primary audience, to fill with images of certainty and consolation the semantic and emotional voids left by death.  The result, as Henderson demonstrates with admirably hard-headed clarity, was a variety of generic forms and conventions, as the burgeoning publishing industry churned out countless “child elegies, mourning guidebooks, consolation poems, graveyard meditations, death-bed accounts, portraits of the afterlife, and spiritual biographies […]” (5). 

Covering a variety of responses to the deaths of fallen women, slaves, elder statesmen, soldiers, native Americans and beloved family members, Grief and Genre does a good job of drawing attention both to the generic cohesion of a small number of types of mourning literature, and to the ways in which individual texts sought to resist that cohesion.  What is perhaps most useful about the book is Henderson’s commitment to moving the discussion of death in literature beyond the traditional critical focus on elegy.  Instead, she employs an impressive breadth of textual forms in order to demonstrate the extent to which the literature of mourning was bound up with the everyday, rather than simply being the subject of “high” art.  Grief and Genre also goes some way towards emphasising the specifics of a nineteenth-century American response to the high mortality rates that overshadowed the new republic’s first century.  By drawing attention to the manner in which mourning literature and sculpture could function either as agents of or sites of resistance to hegemonic power structures, Henderson paints a vivid picture of the epistemological and ontological uncertainties underpinning but also undermining the ostensible optimism of a young and idealistic nation.  In this context, she argues persuasively for an interpretation of textual responses to death as vehicles both for speaking and for obfuscating the past – as tools as much of forgetting as of memorialisation.

Historically rich and reasonably complex, while Grief and Genre draws on a broad range of primary sources, it is worth noting that these central texts are themselves slightly predictable.  To a certain extent, it is possible to see the choice of works by Susanna Rowson, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, along with the memorial sculpture erected following the death of Abraham Lincoln, around which the five chapters are focused, as contributing little that is genuinely new to our understanding of American cultural products from around this time.  However, it should be remembered that, while scholars such as Karen Halttunen and Diana Fuss have made important inroads into interrogating the literature of death and mourning in recent years, death remains a topic that often causes some discomfort among scholars.  The response to the fear that it arouses is frequently to cover it in a veneer of respectability by focusing almost exclusively on the poetry of Milton and Tennyson.  The strength of Henderson’s book lies in how convincingly she illustrates the extent to which death at the time was inextricably bound up with some of the most familiar and respected American literary texts, while emphasising that these texts cannot be disentangled from lesser-known, more generic or popular forms.  Grief and Genre therefore constitutes a vital stepping stone towards a more straightforward, less shrinking engagement with the way in which American culture has coped with the gaping hole left in the fabric of reality by the loss of a human life.