John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War

Article excerpt

UVA FACULTY BOOKS John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, by Franny Nudelman, North Carolina, September 2004. $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper

One of the chief ideological struggles for any nation in war time takes place over the meaning assigned to the dead. Since the spectacle of mass death threatens to derail a war-prosecuting nation's agenda on many levels, the culture of a war-making state must somehow attach positive meanings to the violent death of its citizens. Drawing parallels between the treatment of the Union dead and the treatment of the bodies of the disenfranchised (blacks, Native Americans, and the poor), both claimed in the name of the state or of science, John Brown's Body questions the idealization of violent death put forth by Civil War era politicians, writers and artists.

The virtues of this book are many. It is rare to find an academic book so clearly written, and this topic could not be more timely both for Civil War studies and contemporary American cultural studies. Nudelman's main strength, however, lies in her sensitive readings of texts, images, and objects, often accomplished through careful comparison/contrast. The first chapter considers the execution of anti-slavery insurgents such as Nat Turner and John Brown, the fate of their corpses, and the ultimate struggle over the meaning of their deaths. …