Literature and Criminal Justice in Antebellum America: Rethinking American Literature through the Lens of Criminal Narratives

Literature and Criminal Justice in Antebellum America: Rethinking American Literature through the... In this well-researched and carefully constructed work, Carl Ostrowski traces the complex and evolving relationship between literary culture and criminal justice in the three decades before the Civil War. He contends that in this key period the evolution of the criminal justice system and the explosion of literary culture were fundamentally linked and provide important insight into antebellum American culture. To make his case he surveys a wide range of texts, including crime reports, prison discourse, and the narrative crime fiction of writers from George Lippard and Ned Buntline to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book's structure is interesting: Ostrowski's analysis is organized to chronicle this interrelationship by following it chronologically. Thus he begins by examining crime discourse from the time of arrest and incarceration of alleged criminals to their discharge from prison, through to their postprison experience. This structure helps illuminate a range of themes and tropes in the literature just as it facilitates a detailed treatment of plots and arguments in the works he considers. Ostrowski begins with a discussion of crime reporting in the newspaper columns of Walt Whitman, Lippard, and other contemporary police reporters. Subsequent chapters analyze the treatment of justice in pamphlets and magazine literature (as in the National Police Gazette), and present ideas about the redemption and conversion of the felon, as expressed in the works of Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Edward Hale, and Rebecca Harding Davis. He also treats the debates over prison reform (the Auburn system versus the Philadelphia system) and the role of women, including the importance of the domestic narrative for the reformation of female prisoners and the historic role of the prison reformer Eliza Farnham, a matron in Sing Sing, as well as that of so-called prison angels. Finally, he discusses the postincarceration experience as written about in the memoirs of prison chaplains as well as in Hawthorne's canonical works, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851). Several major themes run through the study and underlie the discussion of the works considered. These include the often-contentious debate over the treatment of prisoners and the structure of the prison itself; the importance of the social environment in the potential redemption of inmates; and the underlying tension, and often-silent presence, of race and slavery. It is hard to imagine any additions to his work, but I did wish for more consideration of the prison as a literary and cultural metaphor as expressed in the works of figures such as Herman Melville (“Bartleby the Scrivener” [1853]) and especially Edgar Allan Poe. That said, Ostrowski's research is extensive, and he covers an enormous range of classic and ephemeral literary works. This book is an important contribution to the new scholarship on the relationship between crime, culture, and narrative in nineteenth-century America. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Literature and Criminal Justice in Antebellum America: Rethinking American Literature through the Lens of Criminal Narratives

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax453
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

In this well-researched and carefully constructed work, Carl Ostrowski traces the complex and evolving relationship between literary culture and criminal justice in the three decades before the Civil War. He contends that in this key period the evolution of the criminal justice system and the explosion of literary culture were fundamentally linked and provide important insight into antebellum American culture. To make his case he surveys a wide range of texts, including crime reports, prison discourse, and the narrative crime fiction of writers from George Lippard and Ned Buntline to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book's structure is interesting: Ostrowski's analysis is organized to chronicle this interrelationship by following it chronologically. Thus he begins by examining crime discourse from the time of arrest and incarceration of alleged criminals to their discharge from prison, through to their postprison experience. This structure helps illuminate a range of themes and tropes in the literature just as it facilitates a detailed treatment of plots and arguments in the works he considers. Ostrowski begins with a discussion of crime reporting in the newspaper columns of Walt Whitman, Lippard, and other contemporary police reporters. Subsequent chapters analyze the treatment of justice in pamphlets and magazine literature (as in the National Police Gazette), and present ideas about the redemption and conversion of the felon, as expressed in the works of Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Edward Hale, and Rebecca Harding Davis. He also treats the debates over prison reform (the Auburn system versus the Philadelphia system) and the role of women, including the importance of the domestic narrative for the reformation of female prisoners and the historic role of the prison reformer Eliza Farnham, a matron in Sing Sing, as well as that of so-called prison angels. Finally, he discusses the postincarceration experience as written about in the memoirs of prison chaplains as well as in Hawthorne's canonical works, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851). Several major themes run through the study and underlie the discussion of the works considered. These include the often-contentious debate over the treatment of prisoners and the structure of the prison itself; the importance of the social environment in the potential redemption of inmates; and the underlying tension, and often-silent presence, of race and slavery. It is hard to imagine any additions to his work, but I did wish for more consideration of the prison as a literary and cultural metaphor as expressed in the works of figures such as Herman Melville (“Bartleby the Scrivener” [1853]) and especially Edgar Allan Poe. That said, Ostrowski's research is extensive, and he covers an enormous range of classic and ephemeral literary works. This book is an important contribution to the new scholarship on the relationship between crime, culture, and narrative in nineteenth-century America. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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