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Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination Hardcover – October 31, 1998


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 31, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067458855X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674588554
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,867,142 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

In this absorbing piece of cultural history and analysis, Halttunen (history, Univ. of California at Davis) looks at depictions of murder in American 18th- and 19th-century popular writings. She argues that the killer in literature is a projection of our socially constructed conception of evil. When Esther Rodgers killed her infant child in colonial Maine, the printed account of her crime described her as a common sinner who went too far. Two centuries later, perpetrators of lesser crimes were portrayed as inhuman monsters in the gory horror novelettes of the time. By tracing changes in American literary representations of the killer, Haltunnen chronicles a change in the way we, as a culture, come to terms with violent death. In doing so, she maps the evolution of the moral and religious beliefs of our society. Meticulously researched and compellingly argued, this book represents a solid addition to any American literature collection.AMike Benediktsson, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

The invention of [true-crime] detective stories is often ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe, particularly in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841. In Murder Most Foul, Karen Halttunen demonstrates that a longer view is required. Her book is a spirited and lively account, generously sprinkled with compelling anecdotes of grisly yet intriguing murders, murder sites and executions, accompanied by explicit contemporary illustrations. Beginning in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, she traces how accounts of murders changed from being seen as evidence of sin and evil to a more imaginatively complex perception of the murderer as a monster of Gothic terror...[Her] argument has a wide and expansive force.
--Markman Ellis (Times Literary Supplement)

[Murder Most Foul] analyzes three centuries of American murder narratives, from execution sermons delivered in colonial America to the recent movies Seven and Dead Man Walking. Halttunen makes a convincing argument that how we view murder depends very much on how we view murderers--and ourselves...This is a thorough, scholarly, well-written work, intelligently argued and full of juicy examples of over-the-top Victorian journalism, on which Halttunen draws for her accounts of certain notorious murders and for contemporaneous reaction to the crimes. Halttunen amply demonstrates that current American culture's avid interest in murder has important cultural and spiritual antecedents. Weaving examples and analysis together into a very readable whole, Halttunen manages neither to condemn nor to condone the various moralities she writes about, leaving readers free to make up their own minds about the usefulness of a murder-saturated popular imagination--a valuable achievement indeed.
--Ellen McGarrahan (San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle)

This is a bold and imaginative study of what the jacket describes as a "treasure trove of creepy popular crime literature." Halttunen's book is based on her close study of brochures, pamphlets, and narrative accounts of murders and murder trials in the United States, from the colonial period roughly to the middle of the 19th century...As you can imagine, this book is fun to read; and it is genuinely enlightening. It is, in many ways, cultural history at its best. Halttunen is a brilliant reader of texts...[and her] imagination, her interpretive skills, are enormously fruitful...[Murder Most Foul] is excellent and enlightening (like all of Halttunen's work); and my basic complaint is that I wanted more. In any event, I recommend it highly to everyone interested in the history of law, crime, and the American soul.
--Lawrence M. Friedman (Law and Politics Book Review)

[This is an] absorbing piece of cultural history and analysis...By tracing changes in American literary representations of the killer, Halttunen chronicles a change in the way we, as a culture, come to terms with violent death. In doing so, she maps the evolution of the moral and religious beliefs of our society. Meticulously researched and compellingly argued, this book represents a solid addition to any American literature collection.
--Mike Benediktsson (Library Journal)

An involving account of the shifting social constructions and understandings of murder in pre-20th century America. Drawing on a wealth of sources, including confessions, trial accounts, and court documents, historian Halttunen traces how the burgeoning romantic movement--and particularly its most extreme manifestation, the gothic--utterly transformed the Puritan conception of crime and punishment. She holds that the Puritan belief in predestination meant that "the early American murderer was regarded as a moral representative of all sinful humanity, and was granted an important spiritual role"...With the arrival of the gothic/romantic, Halttunen convincingly argues, murder came to be seen as a monstrous aberration, something outside the pale of ordinary humanity...[Murder Most Foul] is formidably researched and well argued. (Kirkus Reviews)

By focusing on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American crime literature, Halttunen explores how the popular view of murder underwent a major transformation during the period, in particular the changing attitudes toward the meaning of human evil in an increasingly secular society. The predominant response to radical evil was shaped by Gothic conventions of horror and inhumanity, a legacy that, Halttunen persuasively argues, still informs our response to killers and their crimes today. (Nineteenth-Century Literature)

Contrary to conventional opinion, Halttunen insists it is a mistake to read the Gothic imagination as an "irrational reaction against an excess of Enlightenment rationalism." Instead, she urges her readers to view the "cult of horror" as an indispensable complement to Enlightenment liberalism, the innocence of which it protects by constructing evil as outside the bounds of human understanding…For what distinguishes Murder Most Foul is the careful way in which Halttunen documents her thesis, drawing on a rich tradition of execution sermons, trial reports, circulars, and penny dreadfuls culled from the archives…she advances her thesis with such thoughtfulness and insight that one cannot help but see otherwise conventional links between the Gothic imagination and Enlightenment liberalism afresh.
--Jonathan Veitch (American Quarterly)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Redmeadow on January 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Haltunnen has conducted a thorough research of early American execution sermons, court records, news articles, and novels dealing with murder and murderers. Her findings are chilling: men who murdered their wives or their entire families, women who murdered their newborn babies, people who murdered out of jealousy, guilt, or pure hatred, or for reasons unclear. Her focus is on the way the public reacted to these murders throughout history: early sermons portrayed the murderers as ordinary sinners, and the message was that anyone could fall prey to sin; later, the image of the murderer changed into that of grotesque moral monster, and accounts of the murder itself and the suffering of the victim became much more detailed.
Surprisingly hard to put down, this book is a valuable reference for changing societal attitudes about crime, sexual behavior, and morality. The individual accounts are riveting, but often sketchy, as they are placed in the context of a rhetorical discussion. Some accounts are mentioned only briefly, and then mentioned again in a later chapter; the reader often has to consult the index to get a full account of any one crime, and even then, many details are missing, left to haunt your imagination.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By William Alexander on October 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
The hardest history to write, is, arguably, cultural history. A professor I once knew phrased it thus - "When you sit down to write cultural history, you do your best, but knowing you are going to fail in some way." He meant that all the possible permutations of culture and the forces that impact culture defy the usual tools of chronology and simple "cause and effect." While this may indeed be so, this book manages to navigate those dangerous waters admirably.

Halttunen weaves a deft narrative about the subject of murder in eighteenth and nineteenth century America, and uses "execution sermons" and sensational but little known murder cases of the era to illustrate how the American attitude towards crime (especially with its reference to gender and social class) is a microcosm of an America in a state of massive cultural evolution. For example, the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett, a well-known courtesan of exceptional beauty, is a fascinating look into the "gendering" of crime as accounts praise her beauty but then descend into the most lurid speculation about her private life and her "fall from grace." It shows not only the "yellow press" at its worst, but how we - globally - will derive indirect gratification from the downfall of someone who is perceived as a "bad" person by shifting cultural standards. The book also powerfully suggests that the transition of murder from a "collective sin" to a private, voyeuristic "guilty pleasure" is part and parcel of the "privatization" of classes and individuals as the Republic grew up and grew prosperous. In other words, it is a small glimpse into a peculiar form of a "heart of darkness" any modern reader or even reality TV show maven will quickly recognize.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Lionel S. Taylor on June 4, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In Murder Most Foul the author traces the how crime, murder in particular has been portrayed throughout American history. By way of a plethora of example and clear concise narrative, she makes a very good argument that our view of crime in America has changed along with societies changing view of evil and its origins. Starting with the puritan view of inherited original sin to the enlightenment narrative of the murderer as monster; the authors says that all of the portrayals are attempts to deal with the question of how could something so evil occur. The fact that the answer that we receive is never completely satisfying drives the fascination with each new occurrence.
What makes this book so interesting is that while most of the examples are from the early 19th century; the parallels with the True Crime genre of today are uncanny. This is a very good book with the part about the crimes involving women being especially interesting. If I had one criticism of the book, and this is a mild one, it is that the final chapter on criminal insanity seemed tacked on and would have fitted into the overall narrative better if it were at the beginning of the book.
Overall this is a readable and informative book and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in history of crime( especially 19th century), gender studies, or early American popular culture.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Shawn G. Welch on January 5, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an astounding piece of intellectual history, helpful for anyone interested in nineteenth century literature, the shifting political and social ideologies of the time, or for the Gothic narrative in general. My only qualm with this book is that it often sets too many examples of a certain trope or Gothic convention (the wife-murder section is one example), which take up pages and pages. It had me going, "Alright, I get it. Move on with the argument."
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