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American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman

Max Cavitch
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    American Elegy
    Book Description:

    American Elegy reconnects the study of early American poetry to the broadest currents of literary and cultural criticism. Max Cavitch begins by considering eighteenth-century elegists such as Franklin and Bradstreet. He then turns to elegy's adaptations during the Jacksonian age. Devoting unprecedented attention to the early African American elegy, Cavitch sees in the poems the development of an African American genealogical imagination.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9885-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Leaving Poetry Behind
    (pp. 1-32)

    Elegies are poems about being left behind. They are poems, too, that are themselves left behind, as literary and even material legacies. Their heritage helps constitute the “work” (both process and artifact) of mourning—a form of psychic labor that is also fundamental to the work of culture.¹ Ranging from dull repositories of borrowed affect to dynamic traces of the struggle to fix ineffable loss, they measure out the distance between emotion and convention, between local disruptions of bereavement and long traditions of resignation. In their figures of death, elegies seek to apprehend the ultimate, most unknowable condition of privacy,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Legacy and Revision in Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Elegy
    (pp. 33-79)

    Until the eighteenth century, the history of American elegy was by and large a function of Puritan resource and resolve. The funeral elegy, adopted from their English counterparts by New England Puritans in the 1640s, was practiced assiduously for almost a century, constituting what Robert Henson calls “our first coherent body of verse.”¹ A few seventeenth-century elegies from colonies outside of New England survive, including two on Nathaniel Bacon reproduced in a contemporary account of the 1676 rebellion in Virginia.² But it would be another fifty years before elegies written in the middle and southern colonies, such as those...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Elegy and the Subject of National Mourning
    (pp. 80-107)

    By 1799, the young nation had already caught dramatic glimpses of itself in the mirror of mourning. From the start of the Revolutionary War to the end of the century, the deaths of soldiers, patriot noncombatants, illustrious citizens, and noncitizen subjects had inspired a wealth of elegies that reflected back to their audience various images of a country in tears. Such idealizing images encouraged members of what was in reality a riven and uncertain populace to understand themselves as representatives of a nationally unified mourning subject. They exhorted a people to weep itself into being.

    In the process, the exalation...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Taking Care of the Dead: Custodianship and Opposition in Antebellum Elegy
    (pp. 108-142)

    Elegy continued to be a popular and widely practiced genre in nineteenth-century America in part because of its traditional role in helping to sustain the idealizations to which mourning is characteristically devoted. These include the idealization of the object of mourning—its elevation to a position of unassailable virtue and undiminishing value—and also of the subject of mourning, who cherishes an image of himself or herself not only as a successful memorialist but also as the departed’s worthy remembrancer and heir. Both kinds of idealization depend on a sense of the coherence and durability of relations over time. If...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Elegy’s Child: Waldo Emerson and the Price of Generation
    (pp. 143-179)

    Because the practice of elegy is fundamentally devoted to the enshrinement of compensatory memory, and thus to a complaint or grievance against the present, elegists frequently seek to project a future that would transcend elegiac salvos of resentment—a future, in other words, that would amount to more than a grievance against the conditions of its arrival. Versions of such a future in antebellum elegy include both Christian and naturalistic visions of posthumous personal reunion, the anticipation of transformed social relations among the living, and exhortations to trust in the principle of change for its own sake. All three of...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Mourning of the Disprized: African Americans and Elegy from Wheatley to Lincoln
    (pp. 180-232)

    As part of the mourning culture of black Americans, elegy was also part of the racialized drama of sorrow and resistance that characterized American culture more generally and that took shape in related genres like the eulogy, the funeral sermon, the spiritual, and even the minstrel song. An occasional form, commonly devoted to detailing its subjects’ lives and connections, elegy sometimes helped to restore a sense of the severed affiliations from which blacks suffered disproportionately. But the forced unsettlement of African-American life and the deracination of slave experience especially meant that particularizing details were frequently difficult to discover or preserve....

  10. CHAPTER 6 Retrievements out of the Night: Whitman and the Future of Elegy
    (pp. 233-285)

    On a November evening in 1888, during one of his innumerable visits to Walt Whitman’s Mickle Street home in Camden, New Jersey, Horace Traubel noticed something he had not seen before. “I stopped at the mantelpiece,” he writes,

    to look at a strange little Washington-Lincoln photo. It represents Lincoln as being welcomed into the cloudlands and throwing his arms about Washington, who with a disengaged hand offers to put a wreath on Lincoln’s brow. I spoke of it as “queer.” W[hitman] laughed: “Everybody seems of the same mind—everybody but me: I value it: yet I could hardly tell why:...

  11. AFTERWORD: Objects
    (pp. 286-294)

    On March 26, 1892, Whitman’s death unleashed waves of sorrow, relief, anxiety, and other forms of libidinal expressivity. His survivors caressed and kissed him with their good-byes. They made casts of his face and hands. They washed his body and prepared it for viewing and for burial. Busily, they came and went from the Mickle Street house, exchanging their tears and sighs for Walt and nursing their jealousies of one another. They gathered his effects and plotted the dissemination of his praise. On the day of the funeral, unnumbered mourners appeared, “as if risen by instinct from all quarters...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 295-334)
  13. Index
    (pp. 335-352)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 353-353)