The Oracle and the Curse

The Oracle and the Curse

A Poetics of Justice From the Revolution to the Civil War

eBook - 2013
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Harvard University Press

Condemned to hang after his raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown prophesied that the crimes of a slave-holding land would be purged away only with blood. A study of omens, maledictions, and inspired invocations, The Oracle and the Curse examines how utterances such as Brown’s shaped American literature between the Revolution and the Civil War.

In nineteenth-century criminal trials, judges played the role of law’s living oracles, but offenders were also given an opportunity to address the public. When the accused began to turn the tables on their judges, they did so not through rational arguments but by calling down a divine retribution. Widely circulated in newspapers and pamphlets, these curses appeared to channel an otherworldly power, condemning an unjust legal system and summoning readers to the side of righteousness.

Exploring the modes of address that communicated the authority of law and the dictates of conscience in antebellum America’s court of public opinion, Caleb Smith offers a new poetics of justice which assesses the nonrational influence that these printed confessions, trial reports, and martyr narratives exerted on their first audiences. Smith shows how writers portrayed struggles for justice as clashes between human law and higher authority, giving voice to a moral protest that transformed American literature.


Caleb Smith explores the confessions, trial reports, maledictions, and martyr narratives that juxtaposed law and conscience in antebellum America’s court of public opinion and shows how writers portrayed struggles for justice as clashes between human law and higher authority, giving voice to a moral protest that transformed American literature.

Book News
Abolitionist John Brown's poorly planned raid on a military arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to begin an armed slave rebellion in 1859 is probably at least a little familiar to most Americans. But author Smith (English and American studies, Yale U.) peels back a layer of history to examine what was a very different criminal justice system from the one we know today. While judges were "living oracles of law," the accused were allowed to speak to the public. Rational defense arguments were often ignored in favor of a more emotional approach: a curse--the threat of divine retribution. Smith explains how the court of public opinion of the era reacted to those curses and pronouncements of retribution. The book should interest readers of American history and the period leading up to the Civil War. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Publisher: Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780674075849
0674075846
9780674073081
0674073088
Characteristics: 1 online resource

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