Mortal Remains: Death in Early America

Mortal Remains: Death in Early America

Mortal Remains: Death in Early America

Mortal Remains: Death in Early America

Synopsis

A collection of 12 short, focused essays that analyze how experiences with death and the imagery associated with it influenced US culture before 1860.

Excerpt

How is the culturally learned fear of finality explained? That is the essential question behind this book, which began as a symposium titled “Mortal Remains,” underwritten by the Mary Frances Barnard Chair endowment at the University of Tulsa and held April 19–22, 2001. Historians and literary scholars met and gave papers on a variety of subjects relating to individual and community experiences with death during the formative period in America’s modern history, 1620–1860. The combined purpose of the symposium participants, and of this collection, is to emphasize America’s beginnings in terms that are a bit different from the way the story is generally told. We write of life as lived in relation to death as felt.

How death touched the lives of early Americans emerges most plainly from the pages of their personal correspondence. When men and women reported on the passing of relatives and friends, they bequeathed a rich record to historical investigators. In demographic terms, we are led by facts to reevaluate the past: there was a gradual increase in life expectancy between 1750 and 1790, in spite of the Revolutionary War; yet, while survival statistics vary among geographic regions, we have also learned that the average American’s life span declined after 1790, from approximately fifty-six to forty-eight years by the time of the Civil War. Geographical mobility helped to spread infectious diseases, and many more Americans suffered from scarlet fever, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Growing urban areas like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston faced periodic epidemics—yellow fever was perhaps the most ravaging among these. The towering image of six foot four inch Abraham Lincoln was anomalous: the U.S. population was weaker, shorter, and less robust by the mid-nineteenth century because fighting childhood diseases took a tremendous toll.

Mortal Remains studies neglected aspects of American culture, illustrating the profound ways in which experiences with death and the imagery associated with death influenced not only something as obvious as religious practice, but also national and gender politics, race relations, and other notions which are easy to relate to our own contemporary concerns. As they struggled to survive and grow in a medically primitive and politically evolving environment, early Americans reveal in their texts that mortality was, for them, inseparable from national self-definition. They combated . . .

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