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Revisioning Death and Dying: 19th-Century Attitudes as Reflected in Louisa May Alcott's Antebellum and Civil War Writings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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In “The Pornography of Death,” an essay originally published in 1955 and later incorporated into a book-length study, anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer was the first to document a dramatic shift between Victorian and contemporary attitudes toward sexuality and death. Victorian society viewed death as a natural, integral part of life, while sexuality was considered obscene and pornographic, a topic unfit for polite conversation and social discourse. In the 20th century, however, Gorer locates an “unremarked shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more ‘mentionable,’ particularly in the Anglo-Saxon societies, death has become more and more ‘unmentionable’ as a natural process” (195). Responding to Gorer's provocative argument, other scholars have confirmed this cultural shift from acceptance to fear and denial of death, and as popular interest in this phenomenon has developed in the United States, a credible canon of study has formed to fill the previous void in scholarship regarding the historical, psychological, and cultural dimensions of death that simultaneously fascinate and silence Americans. As a result, death in recent decades has become an acceptable field of scholarly inquiry. However, although often viscerally aroused by abstract death and irresistibly drawn to its depiction, Americans as a society remain uncomfortable with death's immediate implications and, in many contexts, avoid contemplating its relationship to their own lives and the lives of those around them.

In contrast, as Charles O. Jackson observes, “The popular mind of antebellum America was saturated with open concern about death,” a concern prompted not only “by ‘actuarial prevalence’ but by ‘existential proximity’ Life expectancy throughout the century remained limited, measured against today's standards, approximately forty years in 1850 and forty-seven at the close of the century” (61).

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Research Article
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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2005

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