Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview
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The Politics of Mourning: Cultural Grief-Work from Frederick Douglass to Fanny Fern

In the mid- nineteenth century, the figure of the mourner carried powerful cultural resonances. Familiar icons of mourning art channelled grief into recognizable and controllable patterns, defining it as one of the most "natural" human feelings. Representations of mourners draped over coffins or tombs appealed to people who needed reassuring postures in an age of high mortality rates. The domestication of mourning--in new "garden" cemeteries, ritualized patterns of dress, and popular narratives--gave a comfortable structure to encounters with death. This process is particularly evident in the imagery associated with the female mourner, who was transformed into a powerful cultural emblem.1 In numerous finishing schools, girls were taught how to compose mourning pictures and samplers-training that imprinted on them the image of the female mourner as the natural signifier of grief. One widespread emblem was modeled upon an engraving by James Akin and William Farrison Jr., entitled "America Lamenting Her Loss at the Tomb of General Washington." Beneath a weeping willow, a grieving woman leans against a pyramid emblazoned with the bust of Washington.2 Both the drapery and posture of the female mourner suggest grief but also total submission to an absent (yet omnipresent) male authority. Such images remind us that mourning represented a major transition in most adult women's lives, since widows--who often lost their primary means of financial support-- were ecomically vulnerable.

In many ways, the mourner is an ideal figure for a writer bent on expressing his or her sense of personal damage and loss. Mimicking a culturally sanctioned role, it can be used to blur the distinction between grief occasioned by specific deaths and a more general sense of pain motivated by the awareness of being oppressed. Through images of mourning, women writers could parody everyday postures of grief, seeming to promise a continuing subservience at the same time they indicated specific areas of oppression and discontent. According to Lauren Berlant, such a literary position, manifested in "modes of containment," was typical of nineteenth-century women's writing. Disguising social critique beneath a mask of "sentimentality," numerous women writers used apparently artless representations of "feminine" feeling to express "complaint" and "injury."3

One of the most familiar, and yet functional, images of female feeling was that of mourning. Traditionally, Juliana Schiesari argues, men have had greater access than women to the public representation of loss--most notably through


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