Communities of Death: Whitman, Poe, and the American Culture of Mourning

Communities of Death: Whitman, Poe, and the American Culture of Mourning

Communities of Death: Whitman, Poe, and the American Culture of Mourning

Communities of Death: Whitman, Poe, and the American Culture of Mourning


To 21st century readers, 19th century depictions of death look macabre if not maudlin—the mourning portraits and quilts, the postmortem daguerreotypes, and the memorial jewelry now hopelessly, if not morbidly, distressing. Yet this sentimental culture of mourning and memorializing provided opportunities to the bereaved to assert deeply held beliefs, forge social connections, and advocate for social and political change. This culture also permeated the literature of the day, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. In Communities of Death, Adam C. Bradford explores the ways in which the ideas, rituals, and practices of mourning were central to the work of both authors.

While both Poe and Whitman were heavily influenced by the mourning culture of their time, their use of it differed. Poe focused on the tendency of mourners to cling to anything that could remind them of their lost loved ones; Whitman focused not on the mourner but on the soul’s immortality, positing an inevitable reunion. Yet Whitman repeatedly testified that Poe’s Gothic and macabre literature played a central role in spurring him to produce the transcendent Leaves of Grass.

By unveiling a heretofore marginalized literary relationship between Poe and Whitman, Bradford rewrites our understanding of these authors and suggests a more intimate relationship among sentimentalism, romanticism, and transcendentalism than has previously been recognized. Bradford’s insights into the culture and lives of Poe and Whitman will change readers’ understanding of both literary icons.


Poe’s genius has yet conquer’d a special recognition for itself, and I too have
come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him. Even my own objections
draw me to him at last …

—Walt Whitman, 1875

It is scarcely necessary to add that we agree with our correspondent
throughout …

—Edgar Allan Poe speaking of Walt Whitman, 1845

In late fall, 1845, a tall, robust, but by his own admission somewhat dandified twenty-six-year old New York editor and writer, Walter Whitman, stepped from his Brooklyn boardinghouse near the corner of Adams Street and Myrtle, and began walking toward the Fulton Street Ferry. He was probably without his customary boutonnière, as little if anything would have been blooming in late November, and a hothouse flower would have been a luxury hard to come by and even harder to afford. Still, he would have cut a fashionable figure, dressed as he usually was in those days in a stylish “frock coat and high hat” and carrying the obligatory “small cane” then in vogue. Perhaps he stopped in at his parents’ home at 71 Prince Street or dropped by the offices of Alden Spooner’s Long Island Star to deliver one of the many articles on temperance, theater, music, education, or literature that he had agreed to write for that publication. Regardless, his way ultimately lay along Fulton Street, and once he reached it he would have merged with the growing press of people heading for the ferry, boarded the boat’s broad, flat decks, and wended his way through the coaches, wagons, peddlers’ carts, and other foot passengers to a spot where he could engage in a . . .

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