ABSTRACT

Most Americans have never given much thought to the ways some of our stellar writers composed their greatest works in the context of their suffering as bereaved parents. But in the nineteenth century, many of our literary greats wrote masterpieces while trying to cope with parental grief—members of “the club” that nobody wants to join. Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, wrote arguably the most influential novel of the century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), largely as a response to the death of her beloved son Charley, who died of cholera a few years earlier. Abraham Lincoln memorialized for all time the deaths of countless sons at the Battle of Gettysburg while himself suffering the seemingly endless pain of his own loss: his son Willie, who died in the White House in February 1862. W. D. Howells, America’s most powerful editor and literary mentor of some of the century’s most famous masters, suffered the death of his adult daughter Winny in 1889, after which his work became haunted by psychological themes, while at the same time he became deeply immersed in social justice issues, largely as a tribute to her memory. One of Howells’ good friends and literary protégés, Mark Twain, lost three of his children during his lifetime, the most impactful being the death of his own adult daughter Susy in 1896. Like Howells, Twain turned much of his own grief into constructive critique of his homeland. And W. E. B. Du Bois, whose masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is filled with lengthy meditations on loss and grief over the death in 1899 of his own “first-born,” similarly became deeply obsessed with righting the many wrongs perpetrated by white citizens against their African American neighbors. In particular, Du Bois’ long-term campaign against public lynching, a barbaric practice that was carried out well into the twentieth century, most often against young black males, can be understood as a result of his desire to remember the legacy of his own deceased son.