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American Elegy

The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman

2006
Author:

Max Cavitch

American Elegy

An original study of the place of elegy in American literature and culture

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.

Page by page, American Elegy restores what has long been considered a moribund poetic and cultural form to vivid and affecting life.

Michael Moon, author of Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in “Leaves of Grass”

The most widely practiced and read form of verse in America, “elegies are poems about being left behind,” writes Max Cavitch. American Elegy is the history of a diverse people’s poetic experience of mourning and of mortality’s profound challenge to creative living. By telling this history in political, psychological, and aesthetic terms, American Elegy powerfully reconnects the study of early American poetry to the broadest currents of literary and cultural criticism.

Cavitch begins by considering eighteenth-century elegists such as Franklin, Bradstreet, Mather, Wheatley, Freneau, and Annis Stockton, highlighting their defiance of boundaries—between public and private, male and female, rational and sentimental—and demonstrating how closely intertwined the work of mourning and the work of nationalism were in the revolutionary era. He then turns to elegy’s adaptations during the market-driven Jacksonian age, including more obliquely elegiac poems like those of William Cullen Bryant and the popular child elegies of Emerson, Lydia Sigourney, and others. Devoting unprecedented attention to the early African American elegy, Cavitch discusses poems written by free blacks and slaves, as well as white abolitionists, seeing in them the development of an African American genealogical imagination. In addition to a major new reading of Whitman’s great elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Cavitch takes up less familiar passages from Whitman as well as Melville’s and Lazarus’s poems following Lincoln’s death.

American Elegy offers critical and often poignant insights into the place of mourning in American culture. Cavitch examines literary responses to historical events—such as the American Revolution, Native American removal, African American slavery, and the Civil War—and illuminates the states of loss, hope, desire, and love in American studies today.

American Elegy

Max Cavitch is assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

American Elegy

Page by page, American Elegy restores what has long been considered a moribund poetic and cultural form to vivid and affecting life.

Michael Moon, author of Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in “Leaves of Grass”

A provocative treatment of the elegy in America, prodigiously researched and beautifully written. Cavitch unearths a history rarely told, as he re-creates the vanished literary culture of mourning.

Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University

Cavitch’s lucid study details the genre of the elegiac poem, reminds readers of how poetry once functioned in the work of mourning, and considers the role of poetry in constructing a shared communal experience. Whereas previous studies of this subject focus on particular periods, Cavitch illuminates the elegiac tradition in American literature that had its roots in Puritan New England, its transformation incipient nationalism (with the death of George Washington), and its further transformation as it fused with the individual lyricism of the Jacksonian age. He covers a lot of ground here: Puritan New England, the death of Washington in 1799, Indian removal, William Cullen Bryant, Phyllis Wheatly, African American elegies, and Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln, “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” with brief excursions in and around other figures from the period. In so doing he rethinks the interstitial space that the elegy constructs between the public and private spheres. Highly recommended.

Choice

Cavitch’s book provides a timely, valuable contribution to literary scholarship as well as to cultural studies. American Elegy offers a useful set of perspectives that deepen our understanding of this genre and its influence on ethnic literature, and on American literary and cultural traditions.

MELUS

The breadth of Cavitch’s study is ambitious and rewarding. He revitalizes the genre of American elegy, but he does much more: his book will be equally remembered for its analysis of the role of mourning in American culture and for the illuminating readings of literary responses to historical figures and events. American Elegy is literary criticism and historicism of a very high order.

New England Quarterly

Cavitch is wonderfully exact and precise when it comes to exploring the formal structure of mourning poetry and its intertextual circulation across two centuries of literary history. Given this range, especially in conjunction with sensitive readings of individual lines that anchor American Elegy, we are happily guided by its author through this poetic underworld.

Eighteenth Century Studies

This book is an intriguing, closely written and well argued topic. It will add much to the history of elegies and especially to how one views one of America’s great poems.

African American Review

There is so much of value in American Elegy, ranging form its fresh overview of the elegiac tradition to its revelatory close readings of individual poems. . . . Cavitch breathes new life into neglected poems.

Modern Philology

An impressive accomplishment that will surely be the standard in its field for some time.

American Literature

American Elegy


Contents
Acknowledgments 
Introduction: Leaving Poetry Behind 
. Legacy and Revision in Eighteenth - Century
Anglo - American Elegy 
. Elegy and the Subject of National Mourning 
. Taking Care of the Dead: Custodianship
and Opposition in Antebellum Elegy 
. Elegy’s Child: Waldo Emerson
and the Price of Generation 
. Mourning of the Disprized: African Americans
and Elegy from Wheatley to Lincoln 
. Retrievements out of the Night: Whitman
and the Future of Elegy 
Afterword: Objects 
Notes 
Index 