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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/33831

Title: Death in American Letters
Authors: Trigg, Christopher Peter
Advisor: Downes, Paul
Department: English
Keywords: Death
Thoreau, Henry David
Edwards, Jonathan
Mather, Cotton
Norton, John
Cotton, John
Crane, Stephen
Derrida, Jacques
Brown, John
Issue Date: 5-Dec-2012
Abstract: This dissertation examines American attitudes towards death from the colonial era to the end of the nineteenth century. I begin with a close analysis of the thanatology of the Congregational church in New England, before demonstrating the lasting influence of Puritan thought on three later writers: Jonathan Edwards, Henry David Thoreau and Stephen Crane. In contrast to purely cultural studies of mortality in America (including those by Phillipe Ariès, David Stannard and Michael Steiner), my investigation discusses the philosophical difficulties that obstruct any attempt to speak about death. Building on Jacques Derrida’s work in Aporias (1993), I identify three logical impasses that interrupt Puritan writing on mortality: the indeterminacy, singularity and finality of death. While Edwards, Thoreau and Crane write in different circumstances and diverse genres, I argue that they are sensitive to these same three aporias when they discuss death. In this regard, they resist a broader post-Puritan tendency (in both scientific and sentimental texts) to minimize the uncertainties surrounding human mortality and approach death as a universal (rather than radically singular) phenomenon. While my study situates each of its authors in the cultural and intellectual contexts in which they worked, it also challenges the notion that it is possible to write a history of death. Speaking strictly, mankind’s relationship to death can never change. It is always, in fact, a non-relation. The very idea of death destabilizes our most fundamental historical and literary assumptions. Accordingly, my second chapter uses a deconstruction of Edwards’ theory of revivalism to argue that the New-England awakenings of the eighteenth century expressed the converts’ desire to renounce responsibility for their souls, rather than accept it. In my third chapter, I argue that those writings in which Thoreau registers what might seem to be a nihilistic fascination with dead and decaying bodies in fact express a sentimental desire for a peaceful death. Chapter four reads Stephen Crane’s poetry, fiction and journalism in the context of his Calvinist heritage, breaking down the distinction between his textual play with the concept of death and the Puritans’ “serious” attempts to come to terms with mortality.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/33831
Appears in Collections:Doctoral

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