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Kate Gaudet


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									                                                                                       Kate Gaudet
                                                                       American Cultures Workshop

                                        Liberty and Death:
                     Suicide, Liberalism, and the Novel in the New Republic

       America‟s earliest novels were full of suicides. William Hill Brown‟s The Power of

Sympathy, often designated the first American novel, includes two. Most of Charles Brockden

Brown‟s novels include feigned, considered, and/or actual suicides. Susannah Rowson included a

parable called “The Suicides” in her Invisible Inquisitor. John Davis‟s Original Letters of

Ferdinand and Elisabeth, which I will examine at length, converts a real-life double suicide into

a sentimental tale, even as it disparages lowbrow fiction. Of the American novels published

before 1820, at least twenty feature suicides—that is, about a quarter of the books.i What

accounts for this fictional obsession?

       This chapter presents three overlapping answers. First, the topic was in the air. The

eighteenth century saw a lively debate over suicide on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, the

discussion took substantive form in revisions to laws regarding suicide, liberalizations that took

much longer to arrive in England. This raises a question about Americans‟ particular relationship

to suicide, and leads to the second portion of my argument: Americans took particular interest in

suicide because the terms in which it was debated resonated with Revolutionary ideology. In the

neoclassically-inflected rhetoric of the late eighteenth century, suicide could represent the

pinnacle of virtue: individual choice at its most disinterested. But, as critiques of liberalism have

often noted, an ideology that insists upon the individual‟s ability to construct her own life fails to

account for the economic, social, political, and emotional forces that shape personal experience.

Thus I argue that the third reason for the popularity of suicide in early American fiction is that

the subject, imaginatively treated, offered a means of addressing the failures of republican


       Uncovering the reasons for suicide‟s popularity in American fiction also reveals much

about the place of reading, and novel-reading in particular, in early America. Suicide made its

mark on fiction not only by appearing in novels‟ plots, but through a broader narrative that

implicated novels in real-life suicides. In 1774 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a novel

about a young man named Werther whose passionate love culminates in a Romantic suicide.

Translated into English in 1785, the book and the copycat suicides it inspired crystallized the

association between suicide and the novel form for decades to come. As we would expect,

antinovelists seized upon the Werther suicides as examples of the dangers of novel reading.

More surprisingly, novelists themselves were drawn to the image of a young man with a pistol in

one hand and Werther in the other; four American novels of the 1790s directly imitate Goethe‟s

formula or name Werther as an influence on suicidal characters.ii Suicide represented the limit

case for novels‟ harmfulness, but it also represented their power. By reading early-American

print culture through this lens, we see the paradox of the novel‟s relation to the problem of

influence. Readers feared the ability of fiction to manipulate emotions and ideas, but they were

also excited by the prospect of being swept away into forbidden realms of love and death. This

duality both defines the place and directs the development of the novel in early America.

The Happy Choice

       A short anecdote published in a 1790 edition of The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily

Advertiser reveals the strength of the connection between novels and suicide. Sandwiched

between a debate about the Bastille and a ship-arrival notice, “UNHAPPY EFFECTS OF NOVEL

READING” is less than 200 words, and is copied straight from a London paper.iii It describes a

young woman, recently married to a rich old man, who mystified her friends by evincing “a very

gloomy and perturbed state of mind” for several weeks. Suddenly she seemed to be better, and

her friends were relieved—until a few days later, when a pistol shot sent the household servants

scurrying to their mistress‟s room to find her “in the last agonies of death; the pistol still in one

hand, and an old novel called „Content, or the Happy Choice,‟ in the other.” In the book was a

picture of an old admirer. And that is the end of the article.

        What is striking about this piece is the way it draws attention to the conventionality of the

fatal-novel plot. We are provided with a skeleton of stock characters (young wife, old rich

husband, gentleman admirer, servants) and the rudiments of a suspenseful story, beginning with

the woman‟s depression. The girl‟s reading habits are mentioned only in the title, and in her

choice of deathbed props. The reader is expected to be able to infer a great deal: that the woman

doesn‟t love her husband, but is in love with a girlhood beau; that reading novels kept her from

being happy in her prudent marriage; perhaps that novels gave her the idea of killing herself.

“Content, or the Happy Choice” is an obscure titleiv, and the newspaper writer probably wouldn‟t

have expected readers to know its contents, but if we know a little bit about the plots of

eighteenth-century novels we can guess that the story involves a marriage in which love trumps

monetary considerations, to good effect. It stands in for what the girl might have had; it points

out that her “choice” was made for the wrong reasons. If we were to delete the article‟s title, the

moral of the story might be “marry for love, not money.” But so strong are antinovel conventions

that it is plainly novel reading, not avarice, that bears the burden of guilt.

        “UNHAPPY EFFECTS OF NOVEL READING” hints at a much larger cultural context:

the vibrant Anglo-American discussion of suicide that developed over the course of the

eighteenth century. The Christian church had long considered suicide a sin, but Enlightenment

writers questioned why and whether suicide was wrong, how and if it could be prevented, and

what if any right to intervene and punish could be claimed by the state. As print culture shifted

toward the secular, suicide became a popular topic for debate. The most prominent Anglo-

American writers—Locke, Hume, Jefferson, Rush—as well as the more anonymous and obscure

writers of newspapers, broadsheets, and plays weighed in with opinions and anecdotes about

suicide. Over the century the meaning of suicide changed. In 1700 both English and American

law treated suicide as a crime, confiscating the deceased‟s property, refusing Christian burial,

and even mutilating the body. By the nineteenth century suicide had begun to be treated as a

medical problem, a tragic symptom of melancholy rather than a criminal act. As we will see,

American law ran ahead of its English counterpart in decriminalizing suicide, reflecting the

revolutionary ideology that promoted Classical concepts of voluntary action and personal choice

over state and religious controls on death. This emphasis on self-determination, so important to

republican theory, sorted ill with many of the realities of eighteenth-century life. Most strikingly,

it had to contend with the reality of slavery—an institution that denied the possibility of choice; I

argue below that when voluntarism tries to account for slavery, suicide becomes the logical

conclusion of an unsustainable argument. The long, flexible form of the novel suited it to dealing

with this central contradiction in American life. While explicitly echoing theories of personal

choice, novels encouraged a sympathetic relationship between readers and characters,

undercutting the model of rational virtue by emphasizing the insufficiency of personal resolve

against overwhelming forces of malice, emotion, social structures, and chance. Suicide provided

an ideal device for representing and performing this contradiction.

       In British print culture, the literati seemed especially prone to suicide. In 1700 an Oxford

scholar named Thomas Creech hanged himself after translating Lucretius‟s work. Rumor had it

that he had been reading John Donne‟s defense of suicide, Biathanatos, before his death; another

said that he had written in the margin of his translation, “N.B. Must hang myself when I have

finished.” (Voltaire famously remarked that Creech would have lived longer if he‟d been

translating Ovid.)v Eustace Budgell, Joseph Addison‟s cousin and a poet himself, left a note

reading “What Cato did and Addison approved, / Cannot be wrong.”vi In the early eighteenth

century, a suicide-prone reader would have found plenty of inspiration. The neoclassical era

brought with it a literary cult of Cato, the Roman who pulled out his own intestines rather than

live under Caesar. In England and America, Addison‟s play Cato grew more and more popular

from its publication in 1713 until the end of the century, and, along with John Trenchard and

Thomas Gordon‟s political essays--Cato’s Letters--is widely credited as an inspiration for British

and American revolutionaries.vii English readers also gobbled up translations of the countless

French romances that ended in noble suicides. viii Set safely in the pagan era, these tales featured

heroes who died echoing Cato‟s manly principles, and heroines who cited Lucretia, a virtuous

matron who killed herself after being raped. French romances put a modern twist on the ancients

by confounding honor and romance: love-inspired suicides all but replaced principled ones in

fiction, but dying for love retained a neoclassical veneer of honorable death. Though avid

consumers of these French romances, the English contributed few suicide tales of their own. For

the most part, eighteenth-century English authors preferred to keep their protagonists‟ hands

clean of self-murder.

       Yet suicide and literature became ever more closely linked as the century wore on. The

rise of the Graveyard School of poetry in the 1740s popularized an image of the poet, and the

poetry reader, as melancholic, while the poetry itself insisted upon the gloomy contemplation of

death. A French cartoon depicts the English as a group of cheerful-looking suicides (by pistol, by

hanging, by drowning, by drink) plus one man reading Edward Young‟s Night Thoughts.ix The

self-poisoning of Thomas Chatterton, a 17-year-old poet, in 1770 crystallized the image of

romantic, literary death just four years before the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Poor, ambitious, and talented, Chatterton became the symbol of suicide as romantic rebellion,

and the melancholic poet became a stock figure in the English imagination.

       Given their reputation for scandal, for most of the eighteenth century British novels

showed a surprising amount of restraint in using suicide in their plots. Self-killing appears most

often in hypotheticals. Pamela tries to fake a suicide and contemplates a real one in the process;

Clarissa holds a penknife to her “heaving bosom” and frightens her captors into backing off.x In

most of the British novels that Americans were reading in the eighteenth century, suicides are

reserved for minor characters, and not the most appealing of those. In Cecilia, Burney‟s vile Mr.

Harrel shoots himself when his debts become too overwhelming, leaving his wife and the

innocent Cecilia in chaos. Edgeworth‟s Belinda also links suicide with debt, as the gambler Mr.

Vincent is barely restrained from shooting himself after a bad night at the gaming table. In these

examples suicide is the consequence of an unmanly lack of restraint, leading to debt, and an

equally feminized cowardice that elects death above consequences. It is the antithesis of the

decisive, voluntary classical suicide.

       Then came the age of Werther. Goethe‟s Die Leiden des jungen Werther was published in

1774, translated into English by 1779, and printed in America in 1785; it was hugely popular on

both sides of the Atlantic, and almost immediately Werther‟s romantic suicide was blamed for

starting a macabre fad among impressionable young men with access to pistols. There is

anecdotal evidence of Werther-in-hand deaths, though it doesn‟t seem to be the case that suicide

numbers rose significantly following the book‟s publication.xi Nevertheless, Werther had the

effect of firmly tying the sentimental novel to romanticized death. In fact, this link became a

selling point. In 1789 advance notices for the first American novel bragged of a plot “drawn

from a late unhappy suicide,” and when, in the book, the unlucky-in-love Harrington kills

himself, “The Sorrows of Werter was found lying by his side” (Brown, 149).xii The 1790s saw

the publication of at least three other American novels based on Wertherxiii and the rise of suicide

as a popular feature of novel plots. If previously novels had tried to distance themselves from

their poisonous reputation, Werther complicated their position by making dangerousness into

good advertising.

       Given this context, we can see that the Pennsylvania Packet anecdote is drawing on a

familiar trope, presenting a commonplace image of novel reading and its consequences. But the

causal chain in the case of “Content, or The Happy Choice” is far less apparent than the one that

links Werther to the suicides of its readers. The latter does, in fact, feature a suicide that can be

emulated; the former, we assume, does not. It merely reminds the reader that she might have had

a better life, and probably does not suggest that she ought to kill herself. The reader has to import

Werther and its connection to suicide in order for the story to make sense—to be about the

unhappy effects of novel reading rather than an odd anecdote about an unhinged newlywed.

What we can see here is that by the 1790s the novel had come to stand for something outside its

pages—and that something had to do with suicide. “Content, or the Happy Choice” might have

been wholly innocent, but by being labeled as a novel it took on a dangerous aspect; specifically,

it threatened malignant influence on impressionable readers. The tiny article expressed a

transatlantic anxiety about the power of books and, as I will show, points to the fraught place of

reading, especially sentimental reading, within enlightenment liberalism.

Suicide in America

       What did American colonists make of the “English malady?” In many ways American

views of suicide mirrored the discourse across the Atlantic. Addison‟s Cato was first performed

in America in 1735 and grew in popularity for decades, peaking in the 1760s and 1770s;xiv

Trenchard and Gordon‟s Cato’s Letters enjoyed immense popularity up to the time of the

Revolution; the poetic works of Blair, Young, Gray and their Graveyard comrades were

imported, reprinted, and excerpted widely.xv Many American newspapers filled their pages with

reprinted text from British periodicals, which recapitulated classic arguments against suicide,

blamed the rise of atheism for suicide spikes, and, at the end of the century, sentimentalized the

deaths of lovelorn poets.

       Even if most of its print culture was imported, however, America almost immediately

developed an approach to suicide that was distinct from the British. Early Puritan settlements,

with their harsh living conditions and arguably harsher Calvinist doctrine, struggled against

suicide from the beginning. Even before the Mayflower left for America, rumor has it, William

Bradford‟s wife Dorothy threw herself off the moored ship (officially, she fell). Suicides in New

England communities led to sermons on the topic, some of which were printed and preserved.

These sermons recapitulate the early modern British claim that suicide results from temptation

by the devil, who appeals to weakness, pride, and cowardice to seduce his victims into hell.

Satan‟s power, says Increase Mather, is so strong that it enables what would seem to be

impossible suicides: “by Drowning, in a small Puddle of Water; -- Hanging, upon a small Twig

not enough to bear the weight of a Man; -- or, with Knees resting on the Ground. Satan must

needs have a great hand—the Invisible World is most sensibly at work, in such things as

these!”xvi Having identified what might seem like rational arguments for suicide as Satan‟s

sophistries, Mather notes that it is rare for Satan to prevail with any truly godly person. In

addition to being a great sin itself, then, suicide is evidence of the perpetrator‟s already-fallen

state. Though he makes the usual exception for suicides committed by insane people, and admits

that it‟s impossible for humans to know whether a suicide could attain grace or not, Mather

insists upon the execration of suicides. “TO extol the Persons of Self-Murderers to Heaven, is

an Evil and a Dangerous Practice. We should rather leave Secret Things unto GOD, and unto the

Discoveries of the Great Day! ....we should not say, Such Persons are gone to Heaven: Lest by

being Over-Charitable to the Dead, we become Cruel to the Living. The saying, Such Persons

are Saved, may Occasion and encourage others to do the like, and the Everlasting Destruction of

Bodies and Souls follow upon it” (Mather, pp. 12-13). Preached in the 1680s and printed in the

1720s, this sermon exemplifies the approach to suicide that dominated the early part of the

eighteenth century in America: suicide is a sin and a temptation for individuals to struggle

against; moralists‟ concern is less with the suicide him or herself but with how to deter others

from emulating the crime. The problem of influence—the possibility that news of a suicide

would generate more suicides—was to be countered by making that news as fearsome as


       Though American culture became more secular over the course of the eighteenth century,

religion continued to dominate anti-suicide rhetoric. The idea that suicide is a result of Satanic

temptation faded out of the mainstream, to be replaced with a more negative construction: given

that life can be terribly painful, a rational person would see no barrier to killing herself unless she

believed that the action would affect her for eternity.xvii Society‟s increased tolerance for atheism

and Deism were blamed for increasing numbers of suicides: “it is no wonder, that men should

become their own murderers, in proportion as the belief of a future state lessens in the esteem of

the people,” wrote one Englishman. “How prejudicial such heretodox [sic] opinions are to

society, what an effect they have upon the morals and actions of men, let this one article of

Suicide, which seems to prevail in our mother country, be a witness.”xviii While (as defenders of

suicide are quick to point out) suicide is never expressly forbidden in the Bible, religious

doctrine provides several arguments against suicide: that suicide violates the commandment not

to kill; that the sin of suicide can never be atoned for, given that its perpetrator is already dead;

that God has put us on earth for a reason and to kill ourselves is equivalent to a soldier deserting

his post, or, in other versions, a slave depriving his master of property; that it is not our place to

enter God‟s presence before He calls us. The argument that most closely intertwines Christian

doctrine and Enlightenment rationality, and which was very popular in America, is that believing

in an afterlife changes the calculus of suicide. If life is suffering and death is death, there is no

reason not to kill oneself; this was what the pagan Greeks and Romans had believed. But if the

self continues after death, and if God‟s judgment will decree what kind of existence it will have,

avoiding a few years of suffering on earth isn‟t worth the price.

        All of these arguments supported the commonplace that irreligion put a person at risk for

suicide. In print, anecdotes of suicides frequently mentioned that the deceased was religiously

deficient; they also pointed out the danger of improper reading. In a typical example, an

otherwise admirable man “had, however, the misfortune, and a great misfortune it proved to him,

not to be a christian” and furthermore got into a bad crowd that “read free-thinking books.”xix

William Beadle, a Connecticut trader who killed his family and himself in 1782, in the preceding

years “betook himself more to books than usual, and was unhappily fond of those esteemed

Deistical; of late he rejected all Revelation as imposition, and (as he expresses himself)

‘renouncing all the popular religions of the world, intended to die a proper Deist.‟”xx Countless

anecdotes and poems urged would-be suicides to turn to God, who alone could save them. “Till a

man‟s virtues are built upon this solid rock, let them be ever so specious, ever so attracting, yet

in the day of trial he will assuredly sink under them,” wrote one man to a friend whose sister was

suffering from “nervous disorders.”xxi Benjamin Rush located the cause of suicide in mental

illness, but noted that “suicide will naturally follow small degrees of insanity, where there are no

habits of moral order from religion, and no belief in a future state.”xxii Religious arguments

connected suicide with reading through books that undermined religious principles, without

which suicide would be harder to resist.

       In secular contexts, literary influence poses a more direct danger: suicides in print could

lead to suicides in reality. In 1790 Philadelphia‟s Federal Gazette published a letter addressed

“To all the Printers of News-papers in the United States.”xxiii The author earnestly advises the

printers “never to publish an account of any person‟s death who has died by SUICIDE. There is

no doubt but that dreadful crime is propagated by the accounts which are published of it.” Some

of the newspaper‟s readers, the author reasons, will be “persons under deep distress,” to whom

“A newspaper suggests a rope—a knife, a neighboring stream, or a pistol, as a remedy for this

distress which has been used with success.” Accounts of suicide in newspapers fail to counter

this suggestion with “a single reflection. . . upon the perpetrators of the horrid crime of self-

murder. . .; on the contrary an amiable character is frequently given of the wretch who had

murdered himself.” Even worse, newspapers sometimes print “a SENTIMENTAL letter from the

deceased to his surviving friends” by which “the vanity of the distressed reader is excited to

perpetrate the dreadful deed.” The author closes by noting that printers should also bear in mind

the national consequences of publicizing these deaths: suicides make the country look bad in the

eyes of foreigners “by proving that our citizens are obligated to hang or down themselves, in

order to be relieved from their independence and new government.” Clearly the writer does not

believe that “independence and new government” are responsible for suicides; he implies that

there will always be a certain segment of the population disposed to suicide, and the real concern

is to keep them from getting the idea in their heads.

       This logic was appealing enough to get the letter reprinted in at least three other

newspapers, but it did not convince everybody.xxiv One reader of The Boston Gazette wrote in to

say that while a few desperate people might be pushed over the edge by reading about suicide,

“the contrary effect is more general.” Most people “who are only in the first state of melancholly,

will be terrified by the consequences of indulging fruitless pangs”; recognizing that depression

can lead to suicide will frighten people into transcending their depression. Furthermore suicides

are anything but emulable: “as suicides for the most part arise from violent passions, and a

criminal course of life; those frightful examples will no doubt be to many persons powerful

warnings from sin and folly.” In general, the Boston author agrees with the premises of the

original letter, but comes to different conclusions. Reading about suicides does influence people,

but is more likely to prevent suicides than to inspire them. Similarly, in addressing the

“patriotick apprehension, that our national character will suffer from these publications” the

Boston writer mirrors the assumption that some amount of suicide is inevitable: “all countries

have their vices and mental diseases.” However, he accepts that a large number of suicides

probably reflects something wrong in the nation. “I verily believe that the calamities occasioned

by the late war, and yet more the distresses of our anarchy for so many years, have broke many

hearts, and planted the seeds of many suicides, which now happen.” The good news is that the

bad times are over. “As our government comes into full operation, integrity, humanity, sobriety,

and other civil virtues will bless the land. No infamous tender laws will hereafter rob us of

property, peace of mind, and vital blood.” In short, the rebuttal admits the possibility that print

matter causes suicide, but subordinates this cause to the conditions of life created by politics.

Suicides happened more when times were bad, and it would be up to the government to create a

world in which the seeds of suicide would not be planted.

       This leads us to the question of how the government did deal with suicide, and how its

approach changed in the eighteenth century. Traditionally the law had attempted to supplement

religion‟s disincentives for suicide, a necessarily problematic task. If the perpetrator himself was

beyond human reach, the law could only punish “what he has left behind him, his reputation and

fortune.” By longstanding tradition, British law wreaked its vengeance “on the former, by an

ignominious burial in the highway, with a stake driven through his body; on the latter, by a

forfeiture of all his goods and chattels to the king: hoping that his care for either his own

reputation, or the welfare of his family, would be some motive to restrain him from so desperate

and wicked an act.”xxv

       As colonists, Americans were subject to British common and statutory law, but from the

earliest settlements Americans insisted on the right to modify the law when local particulars

demanded it. Generally, British law was assumed to be in effect unless it had been explicitly

modified by statute or precedent. But Americans had doubts about the fitness of forfeiture to

punish suicides. For presumably innocent families to bear the punishment for a suicide‟s crime

seemed cruel and unfair. As melancholy became regarded more as a disease than a choice, and

doubts increased about the effectiveness of this punishment for deterring suicide, the practice of

forfeiture declined. Pennsylvania became the first colony to ban the practice in 1701; William

Penn wrote in the “Charter of Privileges to the Province and Counties”: “If any person, through

Temptation or melancholly, shall Destroy himself, his Estate, Real and Personal, shall,

notwithstanding, Descend to his wife and Children or Relations as if he had Died a natural

death.”xxvi Other colonies took different positions, but almost all were more lenient toward

suicide than the British law; none made any alteration to the insanity exemption. Connecticut

officially followed the common law, but never enforced punishments against suicides.xxvii In the

late eighteenth century, many states followed Pennsylvania‟s example in passing statutes

explicitly ending forfeiture as a punishment for suicide.xxviii North Carolina law, for example,

maintained that “such forfeitures can offer no valuable Purpose, and may distress Creditors,

innocent Relations, and Orphans.”xxix Defying this trend, Massachusetts abolished forfeiture for

any crime in its 1641 Body of Liberties, but the “ignominious burial” of suicides was established

by statute in 1660 for the stated purpose of deterrence; the provision was not repealed until 1823.

Virginia enforced British forfeiture and ignominious burial until 1776, when the state

constitution specified that forfeiture to the King would be replaced by forfeiture to the

Commonwealth. This law was retained until 1847.

       Where suicide was criminalized, it was labeled as a crime against the sovereign and

community; by extension, its deterrence was a matter of state interest. From 1700 on,

Massachusetts coroner‟s juries were instructed to declare that a suicide “in manner and form

aforesaid, then and there voluntarily and feloniously, as a felon of himself, did kill and murder

himself, against the peace of our sovereign Lord the King, his crown and dignity” and later, the

crime was “against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth and the laws of the same.” (qtd.

Marzen et. al, pp. 181-2). South Carolina enacted a requirement that its juries use the same

formulation in 1706. But such language, and the presumed state interest in suicide, had all but

disappeared by the end of the century. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed doing away with

forfeiture as punishment for suicide as part of a project to rationalize Virginia‟s penal code.

Following Beccaria, Jefferson claims that “the suicide injures the State less than he who leaves it

with his effects. If the latter be not punished, the former should not.” Furthermore, Jefferson

continued, this punishment was useless as a deterrent. “Men are too much attached to life, to

exhibit frequent instances of depriving themselves of it. At any rate, the quasi-punishment of

confiscation will not prevent it.” Only people too far gone to consider the consequences of

forfeiture for their families would be considering suicide in the first place. Jefferson claims that

his reasoning reflects the trend of public opinion: “That men in general, too, disapprove of this

severity, is apparent from the constant practice of juries finding the suicide in a state of insanity;

because they have no other way of saving the forfeiture. Let it then be done away.”xxx

       The trend toward seeing suicide as an individual tragedy rather than a state problem is

apparent in the works of other writers, from other states, in the last decades of the century.

Protesting Connecticut‟s adoption of British common law in 1796, Zephaniah Smith echoed

Jefferson‟s logic, writing that it was not only barbarous to have a policy of “exercising a mean

act of revenge upon lifeless clay,” but that the state could have no real stake in the practice.

“Indeed, this crime is so abhorrent to the feelings of mankind, and that strong love of life which

is implanted in the human heart, that it cannot be so frequently committed, as to become

dangerous to society” (qtd. in Marzen et al, p. 161). From the pragmatic perspective of American

law, the ineffectiveness of criminalization in preventing suicides was a transparently good reason

to abandon it. We can also see here a more subtle recognition that classic enlightenment theory—

the idea that people would act in the interest of their own and their families‟ good—fell short.

Suicide didn‟t make sense in any model of self-interest, and so it couldn‟t be deterred with any

kind of punishment. Even in this legalistic discourse, suicide emerges as a site of irrational,

uncontrollable emotion.

       America‟s divergence from British practice in the area of suicide law are further

accounted for by the tenets of the independence movement. The idea that suicides stole from the

sovereign by removing themselves from his dominion—thus giving the sovereign both the right

to restitution and incentive to deter suicides—could not stand if individuals were granted

sovereignty over their own bodies. Religious proscriptions against suicide remained strong, but

the movement to separate church and state encouraged the conclusion that punishment should be

left to God, not government. And while Revolutionary ideology stressed the individual‟s

responsibility to his community and country, it also required that the service be consensual. How

could the state justify punishment of someone who chose to abandon it? Keith Burgess-Jackson,

a historian of suicide law, notes that the Revolution marked a paradigm shift in the law‟s view of

suicide: “Whereas before 1776 suicide had been characterized as a crime subject to an array of

punishments, after 1776 it was a legally unobjectionable—and hence, unpunishable—act.”xxxi

       Furthermore, the much-vaunted appreciation of revolutionary Americans for classical and

neoclassical texts brought forward a group of pre-Christian suicides that sidestepped questions of

lawfulness and became available as a site for working out the relations between individual choice

and state power. These texts go much farther than the legal reforms: instead of removing

penalties for suicide, they actively valorize it. The suicides of idealized classical figures like Cato

and Brutus are interpreted as epitomes of self-determination, echoing pro-Revolutionary rhetoric

that contrasted passive obedience to Britain with the active choice of independence.

       A paradigmatic example appears in Trenchard and Gordon‟s Cato’s Letters, a key pro-

Revolutionary text. One of the letters, written by Gordon, is called “A Vindication of Brutus, for

Having Killed Caesar”—a title that would have at the time been transparent as a defense of

violent resistance to overreaching state authority (conversely, the name Cato signified

republicanism). Gordon spends most of the letter addressing arguments about Brutus‟s

obligations to Caesar, and going on at length about Caesar‟s wickedness. At the end of the letter

he addresses the final piece of imagined opposition: “Brutus and Cassius killed themselves!” The

implied objector is swiftly dispensed with. “What then? Was it not done like Romans, like

virtuous old Romans, thus to prefer death to slavery?” Gordon is careful to avoid endorsing

suicide for contemporary readers, noting “that by the precepts of Christianity we are not at

liberty to dispose of our own lives; but are to wait for the call of heaven to alleviate or end our

calamities; But the Romans had no other laws to act by, but the natural dictates of uncorrupted

reason.” Yet the Christian prohibition on suicide is weakly expressed, and can be read as

undercut by its contrast with “the natural dictates of uncorrupted reason.” The point is to defend

Brutus and Cassius, and by pointing out that they were not Christians Gordon exempts them

from Christian rules. But he goes farther. After cataloguing some other glorious ancient suicides,

Gordon continues with an analysis of revealed religion: “Even under the dispensations of a new

religion, which God Almighty condescended personally to teach mankind; human nature has

prevailed so far over revealed truths, that in multitudes of instances a voluntary death is

approved, at least not condemned, by almost the greatest part of the world”—as in cases of

extreme pain, or heroic captains blowing up their ships to save them from enemies. Despite the

hedging language (“at least not condemned,” “almost the greatest part”) this statement performs

the surprising feat of aligning suicide with the virtuous part of human nature, and setting

Christianity against both. The ancients, without the burden of revelation, come off as much

nobler than the moderns, who are admirable only when they can find exceptions to the

prohibition on suicide. In effect, the letter yearns for a time when virtue could express itself

through suicide.

       Yet politicized, neoclassical treatments of suicide left something to be desired in popular

culture. The constant pairing of liberty and death points to the incongruousness of neoclassical

political rhetoric in the context of America‟s half-million enslaved people. When invocations of

slavery overlap with suicide, however, they represent something more complex than a studied or

careless ignoring of enslaved blacks, even if they do not go as far as acknowledging the paradox

of legal slavery in a country newly dedicated to freedom and equality.

        In this observation, I am indebted to François Furstenburg‟s masterful analysis of slavery

and rhetoric. Attempting to account for the coexistence of liberal principles and racial

persecution in the Revolutionary era, Furstenburg notes that while the Declaration of

Independence proclaims freedom a birthright, an opposing strain in liberal thought maintained

that both nations and individuals “‟were as free as they deserved to be.‟”xxxii Rather than a

negative and passive definition of liberty as freedom from coercion, Furstenburg argues, it was

the concept of autonomy—the ability of humans to shape their own lives and worlds—that

governed Republican ideology. Thus the paradox between an ideology of freedom and

established slavery could be resolved: “Just as white Americans acted to resist their enslavement,

so it fell to chattel slaves to resist theirs.” (1302). If Patrick Henry would give up life before

freedom, what was keeping the slaves in harness? An enslaved person who died in an attempt to

free himself clearly showed that he was worthy of freedom. On the other hand, the condition of

being enslaved was itself evidence of a lack of virtue. “A slave with sufficient virtue would

resist, finding either death of freedom, but never slavery” (1311).

        Furstenburg shows how holding slaves responsible for their own subjugation (and, in the

process, asserting that the only slave who deserved freedom was most likely a dead one) was

propagated through schoolbooks. “Who lives, and is not weary of a life/ Expos‟d to manacles,

deserves them well,” reads a typical example.xxxiii The point is further driven home in widely

reprinted books like Caleb Bingham‟s Columbian Orator, which includes excerpts from

Addison‟s Cato as well as a drama called Slaves in Barbary. The latter features white men who

bravely resist slavery, and, for contrast, a black slave who is “‟one of your faint-hearted cowards,

that you find hid in the hold in time of action‟”—and therefore a good purchase.xxxiv In another

story a fictional slave asserts that “the sooner [life] ends, the sooner I shall obtain that relief for

which my soul pants.‟”xxxv (In this story, this demonstration of virtue earns the slave his

freedom.) And in a parable that, according to Furstenburg, was broadly known and retold, a slave

named Quashi shows his extraordinary virtue by running away to avoid the ignominy of

whipping. When caught, Quashi chooses to kill himself rather than his master, thus escaping

both the indignities of slavery and the taint of savagery that accrued to rebelling slaves.

        The Quashi story represents the logical conclusion of the view of freedom as voluntary.

To deserve freedom, a slave must be willing to die, but in a culture with few places for even such

deserving blacks, possibilities for happy endings—freedom rather than death—were few. Quashi

is the ideal black in part because he spares society the trouble of finding a narrative for him.

Only stories that end in death can resolve the paradox of the heroic slave.

       More accurately, the dead slave can be a heroic slave in fiction. While not many real-life

accounts of slave suicides are extant, there is little indication that the dead were either valorized

or sentimentalized in the manner of prose fiction. For example, this account appeared in a 1784

edition of the Massachusetts Spy:

               One night last week, a young Mulatto fellow, in this town, by the name of Scipio,
               was foolish enough to tie himself by the neck, to the bough of a tree; and thus put
               an end to his existence. This fellow‟s natural abilities were ever esteemed small;
               he never was thought a lad of spirit; and if foolish and ignorant people commit
               SUICIDE, men of sentiment, (if it is possible for a man to have sentiment, who
               would commit such an act) will undoubtedly never follow the fashion of our
               modern self-murderers, who have left us no evidence of their greatness of soul,
               their philosophy, or reverence of the Deity, in their last dastardly attacks on
               unarmed nature.xxxvi
Clearly, the newspaper writer does not take Scipio‟s suicide as evidence of his noble nature. He

precludes such an interpretation by insisting on Scipio‟s foolishness even before the suicide is

revealed, and repeats the word foolish in describing suicides more generally. Yet upon a second

look, the author seems to be reacting to, rather than writing independently of, the discourse of

valorized suicide. He follows the announcement of the suicide by emphasizing Scipio‟s inferior

ability and, notably, spirit, denying the possibility that the suicide is associated with greatness of

soul. Most of the account is taken up with a discussion of fashionable suicide—probably not

meant to reflect on slaves. The contrast invoked in the phrase “modern self-murderers” is

presumably with ancient self-murderers, like Cato and Brutus, who might indeed have left

“evidence of their greatness of soul, their philosophy” if not “reverence of the Deity.” (The latter

probably refers to the irreligion of suicide defenders, rather than any particular God-fearing

suicides in history.) The final phrase describes suicides as “dastardly attacks on unarmed

nature,” invoking a masculine code of honor in which attacking an unarmed opponent would

indeed be dastardly. This account shows two things: that real-life slave suicides were not treated

with the respect accorded to their fictional counterparts, but also that the fictional discourse

seeped into real-world reporting, if only to be refuted.

        Echoing a different fictional context, the other straw-man in the Massachusetts Spy report

is sentiment. The syntax is confusing, but it contrasts those who would commit suicide--the

foolish and ignorant-- with those who wouldn‟t: men of sentiment. The parenthetical “(if it is

possible for a man to have sentiment, who would commit such an act)” raises the possibility that

it is possible for a person with sentiment to kill himself, but this is accidental: its purpose is to

emphasize that an educated, thoughtful person will “undoubtedly never follow the fashion” of

committing suicide. As with the valiant-suicide discourse, the denials here point to the

pervasiveness of what is being denied, namely, the sentimental suicide. In 1784, when Scipio

killed himself, sentiment was beginning to take over the rhetoric of suicide. By the end of the

century, the association between suicide and sentiment would overwhelm that between suicide

and political virtue, and this change would be both distributed and reflected by the early

American novel.

Suicide and American Literature

        The popularity of suicide among American novelists stems, to some extent, from the

same ideological resonances that made suicides popular among Revolutionary pamphleteers. Jay

Fliegelman reads the Werther craze and the novels it inspired as part of a larger movement

toward a “new voluntarism” that replaced older structures of family and religious authority. In

captivity narratives, this meant the difference between passive resignation of Mary Rowlandson,

who learned to accept the will of Providence, and the active resistance of Hannah Dustin, who

engineered the murder of her captors. In novels, it means the difference between Rousseau‟s

Julie, who struggles to be obedient, and Goethe‟s Werther, who takes his life into his own hands.

The publication of Werther marks the new paradigm: “Before 1774, the deaths of sentimental

heroes and heroines were, on the model of Clarissa, cautiously semi-voluntaristic; after 1774, the

suicide becomes a common figure in the sentimental novel; passive resistance gives way to

active resistance.”xxxvii In suicide novels as well as in Cato, Fliegelman identifies an association

between suicide and the seizing of “liberty” that defined the Revolution. The suicidal hero of The

Power of Sympathy, for instance, “had chosen to escape tyranny and flee to another world”

(Fliegelman 151). Werther, too, made explicit analogy between suicide and revolution: “Suppose

a people groaning under the yoke of a tyrant, do you call them weak, if they at length throw off

and break their chains?” demands the hero, in his defense of suicide.xxxviii Werther, says

Fliegelman, epitomized the principle that life was something to be actively chosen or rejected:

“the very opposite of Rousseau‟s Emile or Julie who are elaborately taught to accept the easy

yoke of necessity” (150).

       Fliegelman supports his argument about the shift toward voluntarism with examples that

range over centuries and genres; for my purposes, his examples of the association of suicide with

republican self-determination fall short. Werther, for example, reads to me as the story of a man

who refuses to take control of his life. “What else is it but the fate of man to suffer his destined

measure and drink his full cup to the end?” the hero asks.xxxix And Fliegelman admits that in its

time Werther‟s suicide “was condemned as self-indulgent, heretical, and antisocial by virtually

all its critics” and so the book “would not exert a major influence in America until after the

Revolution” (151-2)—even then carrying caveats that “‟those who have called Mr. Goethe an

apologist for suicide have failed to distinguish the author from his works.‟”xl It stands to reason

that the four American knockoffs would be tarred by the same brush. Addison‟s Cato provides a

clearer model for heroic suicide on the republican model, says Fliegelman: “Because his suicide

was explicitly intended to deliver him from political enslavement rather than love‟s enthrallment,

its analogy to revolution was, unlike Werther‟s, literal rather than metaphorical.” Thus when

reprinted in the 1760s with emendations emphasizing the glory of liberty, “what had been a

justification for the sin of suicide becomes, in effect, a justification for the sin of revolution”

(153). But, as I have discussed elsewhere, a closer look at Cato reveals that the neoclassical

ideology of voluntarism is complicated by the far more deterministic ethos of sentiment. Even in

this most canonical republican play, the discourse of suicide is infected with tears and sighs, love

and passion, that seem awkward partners for Roman virtues.

        When suicide moves from plays and short fiction into the novel form, sentimentalism

swells in importance. Most of the literature I have discussed so far has been constructed like

morality tales: the stories provide an equation for virtuous action. As is especially evident when

they are contained within schoolbooks, such suicide stories are primarily didactic. They either

point warningly at the road that leads to such a bad end, or they use a virtuous suicide to define

the limits of what a good person should tolerate. The plots of novels, in one sense, do the same:

they show readers the admirable or regrettable path that ends in suicide, presumably so it can be

avoided. But in another sense, novels are quite different from the plays, poems, and anecdotes

whose morals they share. Sermons, Cato, and couplets about cowards who live in manacles set

up the terms in which novels, too, discuss suicide. But when we try to apply these terms to

Werther, The Power of Sympathy, or Ferdinand and Elisabeth, we find it hard to pin them down

to dichotomies of courage and cowardice, virtue and folly: the plots and characters keep slipping

out of the schema. There is, I think, a simple reason for this: novels are too long. When it comes

to suicide stories, the extended duration of the plot makes an important difference. It allows and

even drives a more sentimental and deterministic portrait of individual action. As I will show in

the next section, novelization both accommodates and pushes against liberal individualism.

      John Davis‟s Original Letters of Ferdinand and Elisabeth began as a news story.

According to the New York Diary for 28 November 1797,

               Yesterday at noon FErdinand Lowenstern, aged about 40, and a young woman by
               the name of Elizabeth Folkenhan, aged 24, were found dead in a bed, at Miss
               Folkenhan‟s in the Bowery. On this truly shocking discovery a jury of inquest was
               immediately summoned, who found, by letters which were on the table from each
               party, and other corroborating circumstances, that they had mutually agreed to die
               in this way—on which they adjudged, that Lowenstern first shot Elizabeth
               Folkenhan by her consent, and then shot himself....The parties are said to have
               been disappointed lovers.xli
Even in this brief form, the story of the double suicide attracted attention all over the country.

Over the next few months the Diary‟s notice was copied into newspapers in many states. In

February, the New Bedford, Massachusetts Medley followed up its initial report (copied from the

Diary) with a “true copy” of Elisabeth‟s letter, found at the scene of the crime, giving further

details and more sentimental punch.xlii The letter blames “W.W.”, Elisabeth‟s brother-in-law, for

the suicide. W.W. had forced an end to the relationship and Ferdinand had married another

woman. Then Elisabeth had confessed to Ferdinand that she was pregnant, and they had decided

to die together. These scandalous details are not, as we might expect, accompanied by apology or

repentance; Elisabeth defends her relationship with “the man now breathless beside me; in whose

fidelity and sincere attachment I hoped once to have found unlimited happiness,” and claims that

God will show her more mercy than she has seen from her “enemies.” She ends the letter with a

lyrical injunction to “drop a tear over the dust of your loving ELIZABETH FALKENHAM.”

       In the age of Werther, The Power of Sympathy, and The Coquette this story must have

seemed, if not a case of life imitating art, tailor-made for adaptation into a novel. The New York

publisher and bookseller Hoquet Caritat, one of the most important promoters of the novel in

early America, saw the potential. He recruited an up-and-coming writer named John Davis to

adapt the story into a longer work, and in July of 1798 Caritat printed The Original Letters of

Ferdinand and Elisabeth. In a later memoir Davis explains, “Such deliberate suicide was perhaps

unexampled, and the letters that had passed between the unhappy pair, I dilated into a volume,

which Caritat published to the emolument of us both, and, I hope, without injury to the

world.”xliii As presented in the memoir, the story of Ferdinand and Elisabeth is a cautionary tale

in which a 40-year-old man seduces a 16-year-old girl, then marries another woman. He doesn‟t

want to insult the dead, Davis writes, “but I consider it a species of moral obligation to make

mention that Ferdinand was not only insensible to all the purposes of piety, but rejected all belief

in Revelation. Let the reader impress this circumstance on his mind; let him contemplate the

wretchedness of Deistical principles” (30). This species of moralism is, as we have seen,

conventional in suicide accounts. It is not, however, apparent in the poem that immediately

follows, “Elegy to the Memory of FERDINAND and ELIZABETH,” a sentimental piece that

blames everything on the wicked brother-in-law and celebrates the lovers‟ attachment to one

another. And the Original Letters themselves, as we will see, tell a much different story. If in

later years Davis wanted to distance himself from the scandal that had offered such

“emolument,” in 1798 he had enthusiastically stressed the connection between literature,

sentiment, and suicide.

       Original Letters of Ferdinand and Elisabeth begins, in fact, with a discussion of

literature. Once the lovers‟ attachment to one another is established, and hints are dropped about

certain hours spent alone in a summerhouse, Elisabeth asks Ferdinand (by then away on a trip) to

send her some books. “Could my Ferdinand send me a few books to amuse me in my solitude?

Could you get me some novels? The only book that I took with me into the country was an odd

volume of Camilla, which I have got almost by heart. Miss Burney is a charming writer. The

pleasure that her page inspires is never attended with satiety. Write to me soon.”xliv Ferdinand

responds with encomiums on Elisabeth‟s taste and judgment. “You do not submit your judgment

to your book, but your book to your judgment. You read with method, and bring reflection to

your page” (9). Elisabeth, then, is not one to be unduly influenced by her reading matter—and

besides, she picks the right authors to read. In the following pages Sevigne, Sterne, Goldsmith,

and Charlotte Smith are given conventional plaudits. Then Ferdinand points out the relationship

between literature and love-letters. Elisabeth‟s letters are “my classics,” in which “Style is the

image of character” (20); a few pages later, Ferdinand compares Elisabeth‟s physical “form” to a

Grecian statue. Words, feelings, and bodies are so interchangeable in these paragraphs that it

takes some attention to sort out which is being lauded at a given moment. The discussion of

literary merit serves to euphemize the couple‟s sexual relationship, but it also functions as what it

is on its face: a literary catalogue and evaluation.

        Like many early American publications, Original Letters of Ferdinand and Elisabeth is a

hybrid form. In addition to being a true story, it is a novel, and an essay on taste. It is also a

Sternean travelogue; after Ferdinand is forced away from Elisabeth, he takes a trip on foot to

Philadelphia, and describes what he sees and the people he meets along the way. Some of what

he sees is more books. In one inn, “Some novels from the New York Library lay on a

table....They possessed alluring, melting irresistible titles: such, for instance, as Delicate

Embarrasments, Venial Trespasses, Misplaced Confidence, Female Frailties, and Excessive

Sensibility” (62). Any of these titles, it is worth noting, could describe the contents of the story

Davis is telling, but no double meaning seems to be intended; the titles are invoked purely as

examples of bad literary taste. Ferdinand asks the maid “whether she read any of these love-

inflicting volumes. She replied with a coquettish air that she slept every night with the Sorrows

of Werter under her pillow!” (63) Again, as Davis‟s audience probably knew the fate of

Ferdinand and Elisabeth, the mention of Werther might look like foreshadowing. But Davis, or at

least Ferdinand, seems not to notice. “I could hardly restrain my laughter, but discharging the

bill, bade my novel-reading nymph farewell, whose susceptibility amused me.”

       Just as he would later write disapprovingly of the lovers he paints so glowingly in the

Original Letters, Davis in these passages casts aspersions on the very genre he is engaged in

writing. Perhaps he was not aware of the degree of his participation; the essays on taste and the

travelogue might have been taken to separate the Original Letters from circulating-library fare.

But given the pecuniary motivations for the work, and Caritat‟s importance in the circulation of

cheap novels (an 1800 advertisement for his shop lists more than 200 “Novels and Romances”

for sale—including one called Excessive Sensibility, as well as Werther—and notes a newly

expanded circulating libraryxlv), it is hard to imagine that Davis wouldn‟t have been consciously

seeking his own piece of the low-brow, high-profit novel market. What we can discern here is a

somewhat clumsy splitting of motivations: the money and popularity to be accessed through

sensational fiction, and the prestige and dignity to be gained by demeaning that genre. Like many

novelists of the era, Davis defends the honor of what we might now call literary fiction, by

Sterne, Burney, and their ilk, by sneering at less accomplished fiction, with its nameless writers

and fungible narratives. The message to readers, of course, is that the book they are currently

reading belongs in the former category, but the content of this particular work makes that claim

look almost cynical.

       The modifications Davis makes to the facts of Ferdinand and Elisabeth‟s suicide all

increase, rather than mitigate, its sentimental qualities, and move it closer to a conventional

novel plot. Most importantly, the age difference between Ferdinand and Elisabeth is never

mentioned, so that they can appear more easily as sentimental hero and heroine. The purpose of

the story suggested in the Original Letters is not, as Davis would later claim, to reveal the danger

of Deism, but to “admonish parents and guardians to consult the hearts as well as interest of their

children in the sacred bond of marriage, and exhibit a striking picture of the folly and

imprudence of disuniting two young people whose breasts glow reciprocally with the passion of

love” (141)—a stock mission of sentimental novels from Clarissa on. The “editor” of the letters

(whether Davis or Caritat is not clear) counsels, in inflated sentimental language, “Let us not be

premature in the condemnation of this unhappy pair. Those whose bosoms have felt no other

love but the love of gain, are not proper judges of their conduct. This prerogative can only be

claimed by those whose hearts have indulged in a sincere and tender passion, and beaten to the

sympathy of mutual love” (141). The market conditions of this work‟s production, as well as

Davis‟s later comments, imply that “love of gain” affected the author more than a true belief in

“the sympathy of mutual love;” the language of erotic sensibility is an easy way to sell novels.

       If we can read the love story thus cynically, how should we approach the suicide that is

the book‟s raison d’etre? Were readers expected to enter into sympathy with suicides as

dependably as they would with sentimental lovers? And how does Davis‟s rendering of the

lovers as pointedly literary color the relationship between reading and suicide? As we will see,

this proto-novel renders suicide in the Classical and Revolutionary terms that, I have suggested,

made it such an attractive topic in the late eighteenth century. At the same time, it tacitly argues

against liberal individualism by soliciting readers‟ sympathy for the protagonists and

emphasizing the power of external forces.

       Ferdinand and Elisabeth‟s crisis begins a few months after Ferdinand has married another

woman. Miserable, he writes to Elisabeth and begs a letter from her. Elisabeth replies with

expressions of remorse: as it turns out, “Already had the fruit of our mutual love taken its

existence within me, when Wittenburg compelled me to renounce our engagement. I now regret

my fault for yielding so easily to the persuasions of such a relation, and breaking off my

intercourse with a man my soul adores” (123). Elisabeth‟s “fault,” as she describes it, is the

feminine one of weakness. But her pregnancy, like a remonstrance, has shown her error and she

is ready to amend it. “My resolution is taken. I am determined not to live, but to seek an end to

my accumulated miseries in a voluntary death” (ibid). That is, she will atone for her earlier

passivity by taking death into her own hands. After explaining that the idea of suicide fills her

with serenity and confidence in a loving God, she takes a stern tone: “I have now acquainted you

with my resolution, Ferdinand, to die,--which it will be out of your power to pursuade me from.

Farewell! for ever farewell!” (125)

       She might have skipped the warning. Ferdinand makes no effort to talk Elisabeth down,

but replies with encomiums on her nobility. “Dear, lovely, precious, angel! Thou art, then,

pregnant, and resolved on death!....More and more have I reason to reverence you. Grieved as I

may be at the condition you find yourself in, yet exuberantly do I commend your resolution to

die, which I also am firmly resolved on” (126-126). He even commends the plan to “murder,

though innocently, the child of thy womb”: “Elisabeth, thou actest well. Was our infant offspring

to see this world, what would he open his eyes to but wretchedness and woe?” (128-9). He

embarks on an apostrophe to the “world of cruelty” that gets more and more heated until it finds

expression in all caps: “Cruel, damned, tormenting world, replete with mazes, perplexed with

labyrinths; full of malice and ARISTOCRACY!”

        This would be surprising if we were unfamiliar with the association between suicide and

republicanism. Aristocracy hasn‟t reared its head yet in the story, at least not overtly; the villain

is Wittenberg, and his power comes from family and gender structures, not social caste. Given

the number of inconsistencies in the narrative, we might pass this over as a pet view of Davis‟s

rather than anything to do with the plight of his characters. Reading further, however, we find

confirmation that a question of oppression is at stake. Says Ferdinand, “My soul shall throw off

its terrestial [sic] shackles. It pants for liberty, it longs for freedom. I will perpetrate my own

death. I will die, die die! and if suicide be a crime, why brand me ye cowards with it!” With this,

Ferdinand‟s tirade ends: in the next sentence he tells Elisabeth that “the storm...is blown over”

and proceeds to a calm discussion of the question, “What mode of death had we better adopt?”

(130). The rest is logistics; Elisabeth writes back to agree, and then the text cuts to the letters the

couple left by their deathbed.

        The terms in which Ferdinand expresses his most extreme emotion in some ways accord

with the Classical precedents we can assume he has read about. He commits suicide in brave

defiance of a judging world, escaping “shackles,” seeking “liberty” and “freedom.” And, we

should notice, Ferdinand has been consistent in these values. In an earlier scene, he gets angry at

Elisabeth for asking him to smooth things over with Wittenburg. This letter, he says, nearly kills

him. “Artful baggage! you begin your letter with a dissertation on love; enchain my mind with

your eloquence; and finish with endeavoring to make me the victim of servility” (104, emphasis

added). If Ferdinand is not willing to wear the shackles of a cruel world, neither is he sentimental

enough to act as the servant of his mistress. And he goes a step further, encouraging Elisabeth to

adopt this usually masculine paradigm of self-determination. “You ought to consult your own

heart, and exalt your mind from slavery to independence” (108). From this perspective, it seems

to be Elisabeth‟s failure—her feminine “yielding”—rather than the cruel world itself that bears

the blame for the double suicide. Elisabeth has acted like a slave, and thus brought herself and

her lover to a point where the only noble action is suicide.

       This novel, then, can be read as another example of suicide as a figure for republican

ideals of liberty and choice; Fliegelman could have used it in support of his argument about the

“new voluntarism.” But this reading does not account for the contradiction between the book‟s

ostensible purpose--to warn young people and their families so that others need not suffer the

same fate--and its effect, which is to generate sympathy and admiration for the pair and their

death. The culprit, I contend, is the story‟s extended form. In contrast to brief newspaper reports

that forestalled sympathy by sandwiching the story between other trivia of the day, Original

Letters of Ferdinand and Elisabeth stretches the tale to 144 pages—a short novel in contrast with

British examples, but certainly much longer than any magazine story or schoolbook anecdote.

The length of the story means that the reader gets to know Elisabeth and especially Ferdinand,

following their progress as they react to their world and the events in it. We are solicited to

admire Elisabeth‟s taste and Ferdinand‟s integrity, so that by the time suicide comes under

discussion we are disposed to regard their arguments, if not seriously, sympathetically. The book

is closed out with the same “Elegy” that Davis later reprinted, which features a strong

Graveyard-School aesthetic and repeated solicitation to “you whose breasts have felt the pangs

of love” to “o‟er the ashes weep/ Of these sad lovers lock‟d in death‟s cold sleep” (143). Placed

at the end of the story, the poem has none of the jarring effect that it does when it appears after

Davis‟s later condemnation of the suicide. It merely restates the sentimental relationship between

readers and protagonists that has been cultivated over the course of the book.

       We can see here how the novel‟s principle of extension was instrumental in reframing the

discourse of suicide, subordinating principle and religion to sympathy and sentiment. A shorter

version of, say, the plot of Werther could be read as a moral tale: indulging one‟s love for an

inappropriate object leads to death, or, alternatively, to die for love is sweet and fitting. But the

novel as a whole puts the reader next to Werther as he struggles and deliberates, aligning our

feelings with his and supplementing the lesson of the plot with a cluster of feelings: sadness,

understanding, regret, admiration. After so many pages, the reader‟s relationship to Werther is

not the same as her relationship to Chicken Little or The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or, for that

matter, Quashi. No matter what the author‟s intended message, the suicide of a novel‟s hero or

heroine is almost certain to generate sympathy with the act.

       American authors were drawn to suicide stories because of their associated cluster of

meanings and ideas: virtue, individualism, independence. The relationship between these

principles and self-murder could be worked out satisfyingly in several forms: anecdotes,

sermons, epigrams. But when the same matter was taken up by novelists, it changed. Even as the

books hashed out theories of virtuous autonomy, they generated something extra: a relationship

of the reader with the suicide, a feeling of understanding if not approval. In doing so, they cast a

shadow on liberal tenets of individual choice and self-determination. Novels about suicide might

look like republican valorizations of action, but in effect they were very nearly the opposite,

valorizing instead an aesthetic of reaction—what would become the Romantic ideal of

heightened sensitivity to all the impressions of the world. The heroes of Werther, The Power of

Sympathy, and even, it might be argued, Cato take their lives into their own hands because they

cannot control either the worlds they live in or their own reactions to them. From this angle it

makes more sense to read slave suicides as indictments of powerlessness rather than a perverse

kind of empowerment. And it also makes it possible to read republican rhetoric about shackles

and servitude as expressing the dark side of liberalism: the felt helplessness of subjects who were

given the impossible charge of shaping their own destinies. By retelling moral tales as long,

sentimental narratives, novels let readers have their cake and eat it too: they could approve of

republican sentiments while they wept over the ravages of destiny. By voicing ideas of

individual choice and direction even as their stories undercut them, novels were uniquely able to

insist upon the vulnerability of human beings in an intellectual milieu that tried to deny it.

   This number is based on Henri Petter‟s summaries of novel plots in Henri Petter, The Early American Novel
(Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), pp. 403-463.
    These are William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy (Boston, 1789); Anonymous, The Hapless Orphan
(Boston, 1793); Samuel Relf, Infidelity, or the Victims of Sentiment (Philadelphia, 1797); and, less directly, John
Davis, Original Letters of Ferdinand and Elizabeth (New York, 1797). See Petter, The Early American Novel, p.
58n, and Orie William Long, “English and American Interpretations of Goethe‟s „Werther,‟” Modern Philology 14,
No. 4 (Aug., 1916), pp. 193-216.
    London Chronicle, Thursday, July 22, 1790; Issue 5293.
    Possibly it didn‟t exist at all; I have found no trace of the title in ECCO or the Burney newspaper database.
    Minois, p. 180.
    Quoted in Minois, p. 187. Even present-day commentators can‟t resist pointing out that Budgell‟s couplet is
incomplete and “lame”; see Minois, p. 187, and Alvarez, p. 174.
     See Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy (London: 1713), and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters
(London, 1724). For a catalogue of Cato‟s appearance in the speech and writing of Revolutionary figures, see
Frederic M. Litto, “Addison‟s Cato in the Colonies,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser. Vol. 23, No. 3 (July,
1966): 431-49. Cato had at least nine American editions during the eighteenth century; see Litto, p. 435n.
     “Characters in eighteenth-century literature kill themselves by the hundreds with not a word of authorial
reproach. It would be nearly impossible to recapitulate all the voluntary deaths scattered through the novels of
Bastide, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Charpentier, Madame de Charrière, Diderot, Dubois-Fontanelle, Florian, La
Dixmerie, La Haye, Léonard, Lesage, Loaisel de Tréogate, Louvet, Mademoiselle de Lussan, Marivaux, Marmontel,
Mouhy, Prévost, Renard, Rétif de La Bretonne, Madame de Riccoboni, Madame de Tencin, Madae de Villedieu, and
Voltaire” (Minois, p. 223).
    Reprinted in Ron M. Brown, The Art of Suicide (London: Reaktion, 2001), p. ___.
    Well before her episode of suicidal thoughts, Pamela and Mr. B. engage in some literary repartee on the topics of
rape and suicide: “He by force kissed my neck and lips; and said, Whoever blamed Lucretia? All the shame lay on
the ravisher only; and I am content to take the blame upon me, as I have already borne too great a share for what I
have not deserved. May I, said I, Lucretia like, justify myself with my death, if I am used barbarously! O my good
girl! said he, tauntingly, you are well read, I see; and we shall make out between us, before we have done, a pretty
story in romance, I warrant ye.”
Clarissa arguably does commit suicide in the end, as her death appears to have no cause other than failure to eat, but
Richardson goes out of his way to claim that Clarissa suffers a natural, and therefore Christian, death.

   For anecdotes, see Minios, pp. 267-8; for suicide rates in England and France, see pp. --- ---.
     The Power of Sympathy goes beyond truth in advertising: it features two suicides, and it is the other one—a
seduced woman‟s poisoning of herself—that is ripped from the headlines.
     Henri Petter, The Early American Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), p. 296n.
     See Julie Ellison, Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion, p. 68.
     On American poets‟ responses to the Graveyard aesthetic, see David Shields, “Mental Nocturnes: Night Thoughts
on Man and Nature in the Poetry of Eighteenth-Century America,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and
Biography, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 237-258. The Evans database of pre-1800 printing in America shows
that Edward Young‟s Night Thoughts underwent many American printings, and furthermore was popular as a source
of epigraphs for sermons and poems. Blair‟s The Grave had eleven American printings before 1800; it was
frequently packaged with Thomas Gray‟s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” GILES?
     Increase Mather, A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder (Boston: B. Green,
1723/4), p. 7. The introduction to the printed sermon explains that the text was reconstructed from Mather‟s
incomplete notes, presumably by the printer, forty years after it was first preached. For convenience, I will assume
that Mather is the author.
      The devil doesn‟t disappear entirely, however. One magazine piece from 1797 tells the story of Mary Sharp, a
young Irish woman who, disappointed in love, eventually disembowels herself. While Satan isn‟t named, the story is
narrated as one of possession: Mary can‟t stand to hear God mentioned, cuts herself open without feeling any pain,
and during her lingering death resists all attempts to get her to pray. One friend tries to trick Mary into asking for
mercy by asking, “‟What did the publican say?‟” but she defeats the ruse by answering “‟God be merciful to him a
sinner.‟” The editor of the magazine, however, undercuts the religious message by appending his version of the
story‟s moral: “first, that children should be very cautious how they form tender attachments, without first
consulting their parents as to the object of their choice: and secondly, that parents should be careful how they
withhold their consent, when affection becomes reciprocal and binds the parties by vows solemnly and mutually
interchanged.” The effect is of an old-fashioned story reframed for the sentimental age. W. Hamilton, “An Account
of a Remarkable Suicide,” The American Moral and Sentimental Magazine, 23 Oct. 1797, p. 280.
      “Of Suicide, or Self-Murder,” The Providence Gazette and Country Journal vol II, 4 Aug. 1764, p. 1. Original?
     “A Remarkable Act of Suicide,” The Boston Magazine, Jul. 1785, p. 7.
     “A Poem Occasioned by the Most Shocking and Cruel Murder that Ever Was Represented on the Stage”
(Hartford, 1782), Evans no. 44246. This broadsheet was printed shortly after the murder, so it seems unlikely that it
would refer to a theatrical performance. Perhaps the “stage” is meant metaphorically, as in the world‟s stage.
     “A Letter to a Friend on Suicide and Madness,” The Gentleman and Lady’s Town and Country Magazine, Dec.
1785, p. 329.
      Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind (Philadelphia: John Grigg,
1830), p. 69.
      “To all the Printers of News-papers in the United States,” Federal Gazette (Philadelphia), 6/12/1790, p. 2.
      It appeared in the New-York Packet, 17 June 1790, p. 3; the Boston Gazette, 28 June 1790, p. 3; and the
Connecticut Gazette, 9 July 1790, p. 4.
      William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England,
      Quoted in Appendix to Thomas J. Marzen, Mary K. O‟Dowd, et al., “Suicide: A Constitutional Right?”,
Duquesne Law Review 24, no. 1 (Fall 1985), pp. 219-20. This very useful Appendix surveys the suicide laws of each
state, beginning with the establishment of each state or colony.
       Marzen et al., p. 162.
       New Hampshire adopted such a statute in 1783, Maryland and New Jersey in 1776, Vermont in 1778, and
Delaware in 1792. See Marzen et. al.
      James Iredell, Laws of the state of North-Carolina (Edenton, N. C.: Hodge and Wills, 1791), p. 636, chapter 31.
      Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson:
1776-1781, 2 vols., ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: Putnam, 1893), 2:210n.
      Keith Burgess-Jackson, “The Legal Status of Suicide in Early America: A Comparison with the English
Experience,” Wayne Law Review 29, no. 1 (Fall 1982), pp. 57-87. Burgess-Jackson refrains from speculating on
“what intellectual and social forces produced this shift in policy” (p. 67), instead cataloguing the motivations behind
suicide prohibition: “First, it violated one of nature‟s most fundamental “laws,” that of self-preservation. Second, it
infringed upon the king‟s peace, therefore depriving him of one of his subjects. Third, it prevented the actor from
realizing his or her potential as a contributing member of the community” (p. 70).

       François Furstenburg, “Beyond Freedom and Slavery: Autonomy, Virtue, and Resistance in Early American
Political Discourse.” Journal of American History 89, no. 4 (Mar. 2003): 1295-1330. “‟[N]ations were as free as
they deserved to be‟” is a quotation from Benjamin Rush, who attributes the phrase to Sam Adams. Quoted p. 1295.
        From Matthew Carey, The School of Wisdom; or, American Monitor (Philadelphia, 1803), 100. Qtd. in
Furstenburg, p. 1308.
        Caleb Bingham, The Columbian Orator, ed. David Blight (1797; New York, 1998), p. 101, qtd. in Furstenburg,
p. 1313.
       ibid, p. 211, qtd. in Furstenburg, p. 1314.
        “Worcester, July I”, Massachusetts Spy, 1 July 1784, p. 3.
        Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims (), p. 151. Fliegelman relies on the plot summaries provided by Henri
Petter in The Early American Novel.
         Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Werter, 2 vols. (Litchfield, 1789), I:60.; quoted in Fliegelman,
p. 151.
        Johann Wolfang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, trans. Catherine Hutter
(New York: Penguin, 1962), p. 96.
    ibid, p. iii; quoted in Fliegelman, p. 152.
     Diary (also Loudon’s register) (New York), 28 Nov. 1797, iss. 1808, p. 3. The lovers‟ names seem to have been
Ferdinand Lowenstoff and Elisabeth Falkenham, but they are spelled in a variety of ways in these papers.
Elisabeth‟s age is also unclear; the Diary puts it at 24 but John Davis says she was only 16.
      The letter had apparently been printed in a New York paper on January 15th, but I have not yet located this paper.
John Davis‟s version of the letter is longer and quite different; it is likely that both took some liberties with the
original text.
      John Davis, Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, ed. Alfred James Morrison (pub
info), p. 29.
      John Davis, Original Letters of Ferdinand and Elisabeth (New York: H. Caritat, 1798), p. 8.
      Commercial Advertiser (New York), 13 Oct. 1800. Vol. IV. Iss. 940. p. 4


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