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Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860.

Between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century, New England printers published hundreds of books, pamphlets, and broadsides relating to the lives and deaths of criminals. This literature encompassed a wide variety of genres, including scaffold sermons, conversion narratives, dying verses, last speeches, biographies, trial reports, crime novels, and newspaper reports. In Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace, Daniel A. Cohen explores how New Englanders, both high and low, created this literature. Although the subtitle suggests that this study is limited to the origins of popular culture, Cohen has achieved much more. In what amounts to an elegantly written series of essays, he traces the decline of New England's Puritan ministry and their Calvinistic notions of sin, and shows how they were replaced by a secular consumer culture imbued with romantic, literary, and legalistic ideals. By bringing a variety of sources and methodological insights to bear on New England crime literature, Cohen has sought, essentially, to historicize the sensational.

American crime literature was inaugurated in the late seventeenth century with the publication of gallows sermons delivered by several of the intellectual and religious luminaries of early New England, including Increase Mather and Samuel Danforth. Delivered on the occasion of public executions, these sermons reflected the values of a disciplined Puritan culture in which orthodox ministers spoke authoritatively for the community on issues of spiritual as well as secular concern. Along with a related form, narratives of criminal conversion, gallows sermons were conceived as instruments of religious authority, and interpreted the lives and deaths of condemned criminals in ways which asserted the Puritan belief in an enduring devotional communalism.

Almost from the beginning, however, these pamphlets were expanded by the ministers and printers who produced them to include dying confessions, warnings, prayers, dialogues between ministers and criminals, and accounts of the crimes. Such supplementary materials provided an opportunity for alternative voices to enter the literature, including those of the criminals themselves. This trend emerged most forcefully in the mid-eighteenth century with the introduction of the execution broadside, a genre which originated in England, as a popular alternative to the gallows sermon. Execution broadsides were largely secular in tone and autobiographical in content, and were produced by printers more interested in creating marketable table narratives than spiritual lessons. These autobiographical "last speeches" described lives lived in opposition to social or religious rules, and emphasized a view of the world in which sin and crime occurred as a result of individual circumstances, not spiritual malaise. Many were notable table for their exposure of a vibrant criminal underworld in eighteenth-century New England, suggesting that the belief in a closed, unified, and covenanted community united against sin was an anachronism.

Throughout the eighteenth century the declining authority of New England's religious establishment was reflected in the proliferation of criminal literature genres. Although the clergy continued to assert the value of their views through the publication of gallows sermons well into the nineteenth century (the last was published in 1825), ministers gradually abandoned their claims for complete authority in matters relating to criminal behavior and punishment.

By the late eighteenth century, full-fledged criminal biographies, such as those of Elizabeth Wilson, Whiting Sweeting, and Stephen Burroughs, contained concrete challenges to the values and institutions of the traditional authorities. These publications, among the most widely reprinted books and pamphlets of their day, offered ideological insurgent narratives which undermined patriarchal values or the Calvinist orthodoxy, and supported the values of the Enlightenment.

The ultimate decline of religious authority was completed in the first half of the nineteenth century when lawyers, journalists, professional authors, and cheap publishers stepped forward and "saturated a mass consumer market with narratives of sex and violence," particularly "sensational" accounts of crimes against women. (ix) Cohen focuses on this development through detailed examinations of the cultural responses to two early nineteenth-century sensations, the murder of Elizabeth Fales by Jason Fairbanks in 1801 and the murder of Maria Bickford by Albert J. Tirrell in 1845. By looking at these two cases, Cohen explores the difficulties inherent in an emerging culture of consumption. Chief among them was the problem of arousal and restraint embodied in the conflicting messages given to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century young men about their sexuality. The first half of the nineteenth century, an era in which illicit sexual activity among the young seemed to be increasing, witnessed the rise of popular literary genres celebrating romantic love and emotional intimacy in marriage, and the proliferation of didactic literature advising young men to exercise self-control as competitors in a burgeoning and temptation-filled marketplace. As Cohen notes, "|t~he resulting tension between romantic indulgence and sexual restraint created a vast market for literary representations of criminal sexuality that warned against the consequences of impulsive behavior while providing a vicarious taste of forbidden fruit." (248)

Ultimately, Cohen's argument that crime literature served as the basis for the creation of American popular culture is convincing. By showing that crime literature was always accessible at all ranges of income, that it embodied documentary practices from a very early date, and that it provided a view of the subjective experiences of social outcasts, Cohen connects the early New England criminal literature with major aspects of contemporary popular culture. In addition, Cohen has shown that "popular" responses to crime and violence are not the products of a universal human interest in "sensation" but of complicated social and cultural processes, an insight that has important implications for our own understanding of why stories of crime and violence continue to interest us. A marvelously written and engaging book, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace is a significant contribution to the social and cultural history of early America, but its implications extend far beyond. A truly interdisciplinary mix of cultural, social, legal, religious, gender, and literary history, it should be read by any scholars whose interests touch these fields.

Ed Hatton Temple University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hatton, Ed
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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