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Obituaries in American Culture

Obituaries in American Culture

Janice Hume
Copyright Date: 2000
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    Obituaries in American Culture
    Book Description:

    What obituaries tell us about our culture, past and present

    "Within the short period of a year she was a bride, a beloved wife and companion, a mother, a corpse," reportedThe National Intelligenceron the death of Elizabeth Buchanan in 1838.

    Such obituaries fascinate us. Few of us realize that, when examined historically, they can reveal not only information about the departed but also much about American culture and about who and what we value. They also offer hints about the way Americans view death.

    This book also will fascinate, for it surveys more than 8,000 newspaper obituaries from 1818 to 1930 to show what they reveal about our culture. It shows how, in memorializing individual citizens, obituaries make a public expression of our values. Far from being staid or morbid, these death notices offer a lively look at a changing America. Indeed, obits are little windows through which to view America's cultural history.

    In the nineteenth century, they spoke of a person's character, in the twentieth of a person's work and wealth. In the days when women were valued mainly in their relationships with men, their obituaries were about the men in their lives. Then, as now, important friendships make a difference, for sometimes a death has been deemed newsworthy only because of whom the deceased knew.

    In 1838 when a 50-year-old Virginian named William P. Custis died "after a long and wasting illness," readers ofThe Daily National Intelligencerlearned about his generous hospitality, his sterling business principles, and his kindness as a neighbor and husband. Custis's obituary not only recorded the fact of his death but also celebrated his virtues.

    The newspaper obituary has a commemorative role. It distills the essence of a citizen's life, and it reflects what society values and wants to remember about the deceased. Throughout our history, these published accounts have revealed changing values. They provide a link between public remembrances of individuals and the collective memory of a great American past. In obits of yesteryear men were brave, gallant, vigilant, bold, honest, and dutiful. Women were patient, resigned, obedient, affectionate, amiable, pious, gentle, virtuous, tender, and useful.

    Mining newspapers of New York City, New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, and San Francisco, along with two early national papers,Niles' Weekly RegisterandThe National Intelligencer, Janice Hume has produced a portrait of America, an entertaining history, and a revealing look at the things Americans have valued.

    Janice Hume is an assistant professor at the A. Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-586-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 7-9)
    (pp. 10-25)

    When fifty-year-old Virginian William P. Custis died “after a long and wasting illness” in 1838, readers of theDaily National Intelligencerlearned about his generous hospitality, his sterling business principles, and his kindness as a neighbor and husband. Custis’s newspaper obituary not only recorded the “fact” of his death but celebrated the virtues of his life, saying, “In paying a tribute to one who has gone to the dead, it is due to his memory publicly to record his virtues. There is in the life of a noble, independent and honest man, something so worthy of imitation, something that so...

    (pp. 26-51)

    Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election to the presidency represented a political and cultural turning point in American history.¹ Though social trends associated with the Jacksonian era, especially Americans’ concern with equality and reform, grew from changes in both industry and government, they were personified in the new president. Jackson scholar Robert Remini writes, “All of it—the excitement, the ferment, the rapid institutional changes—seemed to come together in the person of General Andrew Jackson, the Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. He symbolized this age, both its positive and negative aspects, its democratic spirit and its driving and greedy...

    (pp. 52-91)

    The Civil War was the most dramatic event of the nineteenth century and arguably remains one of the most important cultural and political influences in American history. America emerged from the war not merely as a confederation of states but as a nation with a strong central government, well entrenched in the industrial era. The post–Civil War political culture found Americans more concerned with the greater community than with that ideal of liberal individualism so important after the colonial period.¹ But in the mid–nineteenth century the right to vote was increasingly linked with the rights of the citizen,...

    (pp. 92-127)

    As the United States moved from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, the nation’s social structures shifted, affecting the lives and the character of citizens. By the end of the 1920s Americans had changed spiritually, culturally, economically, and politically.¹ The new century indeed ushered in a more consumptive and less religious America, and with it came a dramatic, substantive change in the democracy. Seventy-two years after women gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, to hear radical calls for women’s property rights and suffrage, ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 finally affirmed woman’s political franchise. Battles over who was worthy...

    (pp. 128-147)

    If Aristotle had been an obituary writer, he likely would have written about the deceased’s strongest virtues and forgotten his or her occasional moral transgressions. Aristotle wrote of the constancy of virtues, that they do not follow changes of fortune but should be accessories of a person’s life as a whole. “Among these [virtuous] activities … it is the most honorable which are the most permanent,” he argued. “For that is apparently the reason why such activities are not likely to be forgotten.”¹ A society, then, should tend to remember only the lasting virtues of its individual citizens, with obituaries...

    (pp. 148-164)

    TheDaily National Intelligencer’s obituary for William Custis, the “noble, independent and honest” Virginia businessman who died in 1838, served multiple purposes. It informed newspaper readers of Custis’s death, recalled what was deemed worthy about his life, and served as a model so “that his name should not be left in oblivion, nor his influence be lost.”¹ Custis’s obituary, which appeared in a popular and respected newspaper, legitimized publicly this citizen’s life. More than a century and a half later, his obituary still serves as a type of model by providing clues about the culture of his America, about the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 165-183)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 184-190)
  12. Index
    (pp. 191-198)