Saturday, September 4, 2010

Social Annihilation

America was a very interesting place in the very late eighteenth/early nineteenth century; interesting, at least, from the distance of two hundred years.

Fresh out of the Revolutionary War, riding early waves of the Industrial Revolution and snowballing scientific discovery, Americans sorted out what it meant to be American. We left our small towns, and pushed west; we mined coal and built canals to carry it to increasingly industrialized cities, our manufacturing no longer dependent on water power. We built railroads, and new towns sprung up along them like a string of pearls. Free of the Church of England, we sought our own meaning in utopian communities and home-grown religious traditions.

It all sounds very progressive and romantic. But there was, of course, a price. When a person's world was limited to a couple of days ride by horse or buggy on shitty roads, and they knew or were related to pretty much everyone they encountered, they (and everyone else) knew exactly what their place in the community was. As people began to travel further, move to industrial centers, or set out to make their fortunes, communities became very fluid. Members of families who had lived in one place for generations would move away; people who had no family ties to an area would move in, or just stay a spell before moving on. The social order was in flux, and there were so many strangers...

It became necessary to wear your social rank and status on your sleeve; to visually advertise to the strangers around you, where you placed in the social pecking order. There was an entire ballet of right clothing, right mannerisms, right pursuits, right language that, it was assumed, only true members of the elite could pull off. But because none of these things are inherent within a person, social rank and status became contested -- people of lower social rank and status emulated the social ballet of the elite, and when too many of them got close to being good at it, the bar was moved. This even played out in cemeteries:

... the working poor tried to assure themselves a place in funerary society by securing burials in cemeteries or churchyards that were equivalent to those of the bourgeoisie, or within bourgeois cemeteries in inferior graves and spaces. The alternatives - to be sold and/or stolen, dissected, and/or displayed in a museum, or to be dumped anonymously in a mass grave in a potter's field - represented social annihilation. The dissected body was nothing but a collection of body parts and waste, a thing; potter's field was a dumping ground, a place of exclusion…. For working men and women, burial in the cemetery or churchyard symbolized inclusion in the social order. (Sappol 2002: 35-36)

It was important to be important enough that your body was not exhumed by the Resurrection Men and sold to medical schools for dissection or dumped in an anonymous paupers' grave. Funerary display was one way that families could assert their place in society; that they could show, by virtue of having All The Right Trappings, that they belonged. I think the idea of social annihilation is an interesting one in the context of material status display and negotiation.

Significant sources for the above include:

Baker, Faye Joanne
1977 Toward Memory and Mourning: A Study of Changing Attitudes Toward Death Between 1750 and 1850 as Revealed by Gravestones of the New Hampshire Merrimack River Valley, Mourning Pictures, and Representative Writings. M.Phil Disseration, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Halttunen, Karen
1982 Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Hoffman, Frederick L.
1919 Pauper Burials and the Interment of the Dead in Large Cities. An address read at the National Conference of Social Work, Atlantic City, N. J., June 4, 1919. Prudential Press, Newark, New Jersey.

Sappol, Michael
2002 A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomies and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Shively, Charles
1988 A History of the Conception of Death in America, 1650-1860. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York. PhD dissertation, Harvard University.

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