Thursday, February 18, 2010

10 Works - List #4 - American Crime Literature

 From time to time I like to post lists of books that relate to a particular theme and could constitute a college level literature course. As a former high school teacher and current grad student/college instructor, I frequently get ideas for courses and reading lists. I usually forget them before I write them down, but my "10 Works" series here on Making Owls Cool is proving very helpful for remembering these ideas. Our fourth list here is quite different from the previous three both in theme and substance. It may need a bit of explanation.

While Making Owls Cool focuses primarily of nature, nature writing, and outdoorsy print culture, my primary academic focus is early American crime literature. I study popular representations of violent crime and punishment from the colonial period up until about 1820. This list of works is not just an idea for a potential college course -it's an actual undergraduate course I'll be teaching next year entitled "From Sacred to Secular: American Crime Literature and Popular Culture." The course contains more than ten works; there are many shorter readings, primary documents (like broadsides and sermons), and execution poetry. However, for this list I'll write about the novels, scholarly books, and longer works in the course. This course doesn't only focus on early American crime literature, but surveys the genre up until our current moment.

One more side note - the image up top is a dying verses broadside occasioned by the execution of a burglar named Levi Ames. I'll be presenting a paper on that case at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference next month in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

1. Cotton Mather - Wonders of the Invisible World - Cotton Mather remains the most famous of the Puritan ministers because of his connections to the Salem witch trials. "Wonders of the Invisible World" is his reaction and recounting of the witch trials. It reveals Puritan beliefs in the immediate presents of other-worldly threats as well as an attempt by a public authority figure to make sense of a massacre. It's interesting to note that Cotton Mather's father, Increase Mather, condemned the witch trials.

2. Benjamin Rush - Considerations on the Injustice and Impolicy of Punishing Murder by Death -Dr. Benjamin Rush founded the first medical school in the United States, used questionable measures to fight yellow fever, signed the Declaration of Independence, and published prolifically on an array of social and political topics. While he's not as well remembered as some other signers, like Franklin or Hancock, he's invaluable for modern liberal intellectuals who wish to reclaim a foundation for intellectual, patriotic-non-nationalistic American democratic ideology. Rush spoke out strongly against capital punishment, making him more forward-thinking than a great many of our contemporary politicians. It's sad that 230+ years of great thinkers like Rush have yet to rid of us of something as barbaric as state sanctioned killings. 

3. Charles Brockden Brown - Wieland or the Transformation - The American Masters series on PBS recently published a very foolish time line of the American Novel on their website. Why foolish? Because it begins at 1826! That ignores a long history of American epistolary novels, and, more egregiously (in my opinion) the entire career of Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was the first American to attempt to make a living as a fiction writer and his work is really fantastic. Published in 1798, Wieland is a novel that challenges sensory perception, political ideology, and religion primarily through presenting seemingly supernatural events. The namesake is a family murderer and the villain is a sinister ventriloquist. Brown's other novels, like Edgar Huntly and Arthur Mervyn are equally dark and intricate. He's not some relic who should only be interesting to scholars - he's a great American Gothic novelist. PBS really dropped the ball this time.

4. Daniel Cohen - Pillar of Salt, Monuments of Grace - Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace is a scholarly work that traces the evolution of early American crime literature. Dr. Cohen, who now teaches at Case Western Reserve, is the man responsible for my interest in early American crime literature. I took at course with him at the American Antiquarian Society in 2001. The book is both accessible and interesting - not a small feat for a work of academic scholarship.

5. Karen Halttunen  - Murder Most Foul - Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination is another surprisingly interesting academic work. Dr. Halttunen, who is at the University of Southern California, traces trends in crime publications and sensationalist writing to create a trajectory for American Gothicism. It's great stuff.

6. Herman Melville - Billy Budd, Sailor - Melville is best known for Moby Dick, but after that monster novel (perhaps my all time favorite, though I also have an unhealthy obsession with Ethan Frome...), Billy Budd is perhaps his most widely read work. Someone will probably correct me on that and say it's "Bartleby the Scrivener," so I'll just say I stand corrected in advance. In Billy Budd the eponymous character, the "handsome sailor" must be put to death for accidental killing of a shipmate. It's a moving and frustrating story.

7. William Faulkner - Dry September -   Dry September  is a harrowing short story about racism and murder in the South. It's terrifying and, like Billy Budd, horribly frustrating. I'm including it alongside stories by Jean Toomer and with Ida Barnett-Wells "The Red Record." I've highlighted Faulkner here because "Dry September" is available in full-text online.

8. Truman Capote - In Cold Blood -  The 2005 film Capote starring Philip Seymor Hoffman was based on Truman Capote's work writing In Cold Blood. An investigative work into the 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter and his family by by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the book hovers somewhere in the region of pseudo-documentary and compellingly turns the event and the killers into characters. I wanted to also use Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song, but it's just too long for an undergraduate course. That book tells the story of Gary Gilmore, the first person executed after the moratorium in the 1970's. The Adverts' song "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" is a rad tune. This description is a bit tangential - sorry about that.

9. Cormac McCarthy - No Country for Old Men - The Cohen brother's film is great, but nothing compares to reading McCarthy. No Country for Old Men places an ordinary man and a sociopath killer in intersecting paths. While not quite as terrifying as Blood Meridian's Judge, Anton Chigur is nightmare inducing enough. 

10. Ernest J. Gaines - A Lesson Before Dying - I think a common theme in crime literature, and particularly execution literature, is that it's frustrating. It has to be - there's a level of illogical thinking to institutional killing that's really maddening when author's put a human on the criminal. Gaines goes one step further and has his character wrongfully convicted of a triple murder. He makes it more infuriating by highlighting how racism dooms Jefferson before the law even gets started with him. The book reveals how difficult it is to try to reinstate someone's humanity after it's been taken from them.


Gabe said...

I'd take that class.

Amy said...

So glad to see that you are doing what you love! I am a bit jealous :)

Eric said...

Yo! If that's Gabe Z I'd love to have you.(If it's not Gabe Z, I'd probably still like to have you, it's only that I know Gabe Z)

@Amy - I've been in the composition trenches for sometime. This course is going to be great. I taught a 242 - Modern American Lit survey in the Fall and that was great too. Maybe I'll post the list on here sometime. Yes, it includes Ethan Frome.