The Spectacle of Death: Populist Literary Responses to American Capital Cases

Kristin Boudreau, Author Prometheus Books $20 (292p) ISBN 978-1-59102-403-3
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.
Reviewed on: 04/03/2006
Release date: 04/01/2006
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