Book Review: Literary Executions: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820-1925 Reviewed by Sara Ruzza
John Cyril Barton, Literary Executions: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820-1925 (John Hopkins University Press, 2014). Hardback $49.95 E-book $49.95. Reviewed by Sara Ruzza
Once at the forefront of the movement for the abolition of the death penalty, it is ‘painfully ironic’ to consider that the United States virtually remains the only Western democracy still ‘sustaining the practice’ (260). It is with this tragic assessment in mind that John Cyril Barton writes Literary Executions, an interdisciplinary and extensively researched study that attends to the complicated evolution of the debate around lawful death across the nineteenth century, revealing its unsuspected pervasiveness within American culture at large.
Cross-examining novels and short stories with a spate of legislative reports, trial transcripts and legal documents, Barton compiles an engaging and deeply informed account that draws out and evaluates the strategies whereby literature catalysed and shaped key discussions around the nineteenth-century anti-gallows movement. Wide-ranging and yet carefully selective, the book sets out to fulfil three overarching goals: to assess if and how death penalty reforms were influenced by literary productions, to evaluate the impact of legal writing upon literary forms and, finally, to consider how fictional depictions of capital punishment metaphorically staged a confrontation between the citizen as subject and the sovereign authority wielded by the state.
Moving from the writings of the early republic to Dreiser’s elephantine An American Tragedy, Barton tackles a daunting stretch of time and an equally vast amount of literary and legal sources, tracing the staggering moral complexity that fictional executions came to embody by the end of the century. He rightfully corrects the assumption that the movement for the abolition of slavery was the sole political and social crusade that moved the consciences and pens of authors, urging for new critical work around the influence exerted by key writers and activists upon the campaign for the reform of capital punishment. For instance, his reading of the writings of Lydia Maria Child, a Northern abolitionist who lent equal consideration to the anti-gallows movement, operates as spadework for a fundamental and much needed enquiry into the true breadth of the influence wielded by such voices in support of this often-neglected campaign.
A skilled close reader, Barton excels in his nuanced and carefully articulated readings of the multiple execution scenes that constellate his chosen literary sources, detailed examinations that often reveal the similar stance held on the issue of lawful death by authors and intellectuals who diverged in their approach to other debates. His cross-examinations of literary texts and legal documents are equally innovative and artfully executed, sounding the extent to which execution scenes penned by popular authors were inspired by famous trials and legal cases. The Knapp Trial, in which Daniel Webster carefully arranged purely circumstantial evidence in order to convict and order the death of the defendant, provides a fascinatingly corrupt logic that leads the narrator of The House of the Seven Gables to the tragic awareness that stories can be pulled in all kinds of directions just by collating ‘seemingly related circumstances’ (147).
Similarly, the Somers mutiny affair frames Barton’s reading of Melville’s White-Jacket and Benito Cereno, though his most interesting contribution to an evaluation of Melville’s stance on the death penalty is a nuanced examination of the author’s fundamentally unstable and deeply ambiguous approach to the issue. Having railed against it in White-Jacket, Melville’s position becomes increasingly muddled in his later works, arguably influenced, as posited by Barton, by the impending Civil War, ‘the inevitability of bloodshed’ associated with it and by the resulting right of the state to execute dangerous enemies (206).
If a study of Melville’s works allows Barton to situate the movement against lawful death within historical upheavals that complicate questions of morality, a final chapter on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy aptly concludes Barton’s study of the ethical and legal complexity acquired by fictional representations of the death penalty across and beyond the American nineteenth century. Barton’s reading of Dreiser’s novel, in fact, illustrates the impossibility of locating a single point ‘at which one person or agent can be held morally culpable’ for someone’s execution (246), revealing how deliberately vague linguistic formulations could catalyse an endless deferral and displacement of authority within the American legal system. Dreiser himself, as evidenced by Barton, cannot quite resolve the issues that he stages throughout An American Tragedy, mirroring the text’s ambiguous treatment of its execution scenes.
Overall, Barton’s Literary Executions is an originally executed and consistently compelling study that resurrects and foregrounds the second abolition movement of the American nineteenth century. His close readings of the works of canonical authors reveal how ethical and moral issues, which tended to remain latent and unacknowledged in the clinical writing of legal transcripts and summations, could be fully explored within the spaces of novels and short stories. Through innovative cross-examinations and nuanced close readings, Barton lays the groundwork for a further and much needed analysis of the real influence wielded by literature in the debate around the abolition of lawful death.
Bio: Sara Ruzza graduated from King's College London and is currently studying for an MSc in US Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include nineteenth-century American women's writing, the work of Elizabeth Stoddard, queer Studies and American literary regionalism.