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American Death Cult

Waiting for the heavenly utopia

Nov. 3, 2008
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With its deadly accuracy, the rifled musket may have wrought unprecedented psychological terror during the American Civil War, but more influential in the hearts and minds of soldiers and their loved ones was America's culture of death.

So argues Hendrix College history professor Mark S. Schantz in Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America's Culture of Death (Cornell University Press).

The harshness of life in those years, worsened by urban crowding, resulted in an average white male life expectancy of 43; black males on some Southern plantations could expect to reach only 19. Living with the suffering and mass death brought about by cholera, yellow fever and tuberculosis compelled Americans to deal with death in their daily lives and in their literature, art, music, religious practices, civic activities and private grief.

With generous illustrated examples, Schantz depicts an America preoccupied with death, a place where a rural cemetery movement was a serious political cause. In this America, Shakespeare and militaristic Greek classicists like Herodotus (who committed to parchment his belief that it was "better to be dead than alive") were popular reading, and families of the 1830s and 1840s treasured photographic portraits of the freshly dead, including infants and children.

Schantz introduces the book as an exploratory peek behind the curtain, not an extensive work of primary investigation. He relies heavily on the work of historian James M. McPherson and on a collection of memorial lithographs archived at the American Antiquarian Society in making his multifaceted case that, "Above all, Americans celebrated a disposition of resignation and acceptance in the face of death."

But religious writings and sermons from the antebellum period reveal more than resignation and acceptance: They celebrate death as a retreat to an actual nation-state with buildings. Even deceased soldiers from opposing armies would unite and embrace in this heaven. This fascinating notion of a real, three-dimensional resting place populated by exalted human bodies did cause problems for the faithful who also entertained a basic belief in molecular physics.

African-American slaves suffered from such physical and mental torment that, as documented here in paintings and firsthand accounts, they sometimes took their own lives as well as those of their children. For them death was preferable to the debasement of slavery, which black abolitionist leaders Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass regarded as a kind of death itself. The Christian view of Earth as a wicked place took powerful root in slave communities, where the Bible was the primary tool of literacy. Suicide among slaves became an act of heroic protest, the dead slaves holy martyrs likened by their survivors to the early Christians. In the mass culture, black men earned respect only by dying in battle.

America's antebellum culture of death prepared soldiers and families for war and, when war came, shielded them from its ungodly horrors. Civil War photographs were meticulously staged, posed like the post-mortem photos of the previous 20 years, tastefully arranged to hide evidence of pain, injury or mutilation. Photographer Matthew Brady's wartime exhibits in New York drew hordes of people who stared raptly at images that suggested deep, peaceful sleep.

Death poetry was a thriving genre in popular magazines like Southern Literary Messenger. Writers devoted truckloads of verse to the promise of meeting one's maker. Over the winter of 1841, following the death of his infant son, Salem, Mass., resident Pickering Dodge composed a volume of 185 poems about death and presented it to his wife, Anna, as a wedding anniversary gift. The death of a child was pronounced, ultimately, cause for hope and joy, death in grisly battle exalted as heavenly virtue.

Schantz declares Americans' "willingness to honor and valorize the past" the ultimate legacy of America's antebellum culture of death. It's a modest acknowledgment. Awaiting the Heavenly Country is a bitter story of deceit and ignorance, of pretty flowers over mass graves that shouldn't exist in America but-as recounted in Schantz's haunting description of a visit to Shiloh, Tenn.-do.


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