Grave Concerns: Decay, Death, and Nature in the Early Republic
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While multiple questions drive this project, one fundamental query lays at its center. How did American approaches to mortality, their own and others, during the early national period (roughly 1770 to 1850) shape both their understanding of themselves and their environment? The answer to that question exposes a distinct set of values revolving around preparation for death, and acknowledgment and respect for their own (and others mortality), which Americans imbibed from various and disparate sources. More specifically, the first half of the project examines how the letters they wrote and read, the sermons they listened to, the mourning rituals they practiced, the burial grounds they utilized, and the novels and poetry they consumed all combined to create a shared knowledge base and approach to death during the early republic. Uniquely, these principles found strength through a conscious linking of mortality to the natural world. Americans understood their own death as part of a larger, both positive and negative, perfected natural system created and perpetuated by God. The American approach towards mortality, however, was not static and the nineteenth century bore witness to the emergence of a sentimentalized, sanitized, and less human inclusive vision of mortality during 1830s and beyond. Ironically, nature remained central to the way Americans experienced death, however, in a consciously aesthetic, romantic, controlled manner. It is written into the present where rolling and manicured lawns combine together with still ponds to create bucolic scenes of peaceful rest among scenes of beauty. The old, grim, but no less natural lessons of worms, dirt, decay, and dissolution no longer hold sway, ignoring the vital and humbling connection between human bodies and the natural world that was understood in the early republic. This shift (and the focus of the second half of the dissertation), was spurred on by numerous interrelated but distinct factors ranging from urban growth, disease, foreign immigration, and changing cultural sentiments. Americans during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s redefined their relationship to death and in doing so consciously turned away from a vibrant, dynamic, and humbling vision of mortality grounded in the natural world.