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The Spectacle of Death: Populist Literary Responses to American Capital Cases Paperback – April 4, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This exploration of execution literature offers not only close analysis of literary works-from bestselling books to little-known poems-inspired by publicly sanctioned deaths, but also vivid retellings of some less than judicious episodes in America's past. Boudreau has selected six cases, from famous (Emmett Till) and obscure (Leo Frank) lynchings, the Haymarket Anarchist Trial of 1886, the highly dramatized Karla Fay Tucker trial of 1998 and Gary Gilmore's murder case; the literary response to each highlights and influences an ever-evolving public opinion, which is the gristle of Boudreau's investigation. She provides intelligent observations on the works while still allowing them to speak for themselves. In her careful read of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, for example, Boudreau comments on the "deeply complicated" book which was critical of the scavenging journalists who flocked the to Gilmore's trial, but hewed firmly to the belief that its own breed of "new journalism" as morally justifiable. The book seems to flame out toward the end, with the last chapter touching on George W. Bush's fondness for execution, The Exonerated and the Illinois moratorium on executions. While Boudreau's own prose is less than exciting, her consideration of literature of the public conscience-whether watershed or nearly anonymous-is thought-provoking and timely.
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Review

"This exploration of execution literature offers not only close analysis of literary works—from bestselling books to little-known poems—inspired by publicly sanctioned deaths, but also vivid retellings of some less than judicious episodes in America’s past….Boudreau’s…consideration of literature of the public conscience—whether watershed or nearly anonymous—is thought-provoking and timely."

- Publishers Weekly


"The Spectacle of Death ... is a very readable and fascinating trip through American history. It ... makes an important contribution to our knowledge of America's vexed relationship to the ultimate punishment."

- Austin Sarat
William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence
and Political Science, Amherst College
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (April 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159102403X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591024033
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,673,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Cat I am on October 17, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In The Spectacle of Death Kristin Boudreau analyzes as the subtitle suggests populist literary responses to American capital cases. In the theoretical introduction to the text Boudreau puts the thesis forward that literature, or to be more precise 'gallows literature,' and public executions in the eighteenth century were intended to fulfill a similar social function, i.e. to deter people from committing crimes and to re-affirm the power of state and church. However, as Boudreau argues, beginning in the nineteenth century, both public execution (which were often gruesome to witness) and gallows literature started to create the opposite effect. Instead of deterring people (it is actually debatable whether deterrence ever worked) and affirming the state's role in executing the law, they created feelings of empathy and pity in the onlooker/reader and thus public executions fell out of grace and novels emerged as a means of protest against the state and the church.
In the following chapters Bourdreau consequently follows this argument by discussion a number of criminal cases beginning with the Fall Rivers Murder of Sarah Cornell (1832) and ending with the Karla Faye Tucker case (executed in 1998). But despite this well developed argument there are two points that make this book less than perfect.
1) The title (and subtitle of the book) suggest that the author analyzes literary texts, however, close readings of literary texts are completely missing from the text. There are a few close readings of newspaper editorials and media coverage but surprisingly not of the literary texts she supposedly discusses. That said, the titles of the literary works are often buried in the notes and not even mentioned in the main text.
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