Demands of the Dead – Katy Ryan, Editor [Feature Review]

June 15, 2012 — 1 Comment


Page 2 – Demands of the Dead

As a general reader, I was most drawn to the personal narratives, poetry and plays included in the volume. I particularly found the short play, Life by Asphyxiation, by Kia Corthron, captivating. In it she places side-by-side a modern day murderer, a Native American (presumably who killed early in the history of the United States) and Nat Turner, a slave. The work manages to illuminate the racial and unjust history of the death penalty, while also giving personal voices to inmates and provides a challenging and unexpected space for conversation between a murderer and his young victim. Demands of the Dead, however, is also a book of literary criticism, and includes essays on such works as Earnest Gaines’ A Lesson before Dying, Melville’s Billy Budd, Gertrude Atherton’s little known Patience Sparhawk and Her Times, the history of Antebellum anti-gallows literature, and the contributions of African American poets and Da Lench Mob’s 1992 gangsta rap album Guerillas in the Mist. The value of reading this essays, whether or not I was aware previously of the works in question, was gaining a broad understanding of the history of the death penalty and its dissenters. For instance, Jennifer Leigh Lieberman’s essay on Patience Sparhawk and Her Times and H. Bruce Franklin’s reassessment of Melville’s Billy Bud both provide an important overview of the movement from public hanging to the use of the electric chair within the walls of the prison, largely motivated by the debate between Thomas Edison and Westinghouse over AC or DC current in the mid-to-late 1800’s. These essays and this history highlighted for me how easy it was for questions of means, regarding the death penalty, to overshadow and eliminate conversation at a state and national level over whether the death penalty is constitutional or morally right at all.

David Kieran’s essay Lynching, Embodiment, and Post-1960 African American Poetry served as a well-placed reminder that, while the term “capital punishment” usually conjures the notion of an action by the state or state-killing, there is a long history of non-state-sanctioned killing and administration of the death penalty through lynching and other forms of racial violence. Kieran, by way of the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and others, reminds us of the magnitude of police brutality and killing, such as the 1985 bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia that killed eleven people, five children and that the police let burn to destroy more than 60 houses. The essay by John Cyril Barton, on Antigallows Activism in Antebellum American Literature, most directly intersects with the role of the clergy and of Biblical arguments in the history of the movements for and against the death penalty. In it Barton comments on and critiques the important article by O’Sullivan, published in 1843, titled “The Gallows and the Gospel: An Appeal to Clergymen Opposing Themselves to the Abolition of the One, in the Name of the Other.”

In conclusion, Demands of the Dead, even for the general reader, is an engrossing, enlightening and formidable book, that manages to illuminate many aspects of the injustice of the death penalty and certainly makes me want to learn more and take action against it. It also inspired me to read some of the literary works it commented upon and would be an excellent introduction to those works if used in the classroom or book group.  Demands of the Dead’s greatest accomplishment, perhaps, is in exposing the double standard of justice that we hold today in the United States, and many of us, including myself at times, have perhaps wrongfully held in our own hearts. Referring to a character in Whitman’s A Dialogue, John Cyril Barton writes “this inadvertent admission of guilt [in A Dialogue] permits the convict to comment on social responsibility and to expose a double standard in a theory of justice which holds that an individual, when sinned against, should forgive, while society ought to withhold forgiveness and exact payment in kind.” (154) Demands of the Dead, then, asks whether we as a people are truly demeaned by the death penalty, and whether we should indeed be guided as a society towards forgiveness and reconciliation, instead of retribution and a desire for revenge.