Friday, May 23, 2008

Death Becomes Them


For some completely bizarre reason, I've suddenly become enamored with many of the characters (and two particular periods) in American history. In the last month or two, I've digested the HBO "John Adams" series, as well as audiobooks of Lincoln's Melancholy and the Thomas Jefferson Presidency. I've read Mark Twain's The Gilded Age. I'm now in the middle of his The Innocents Abroad, and I'm also listening to a Twain biography I just picked up at Barnes & Noble.

This cast of characters basically covers two eras: the Revolution, and Civil War/Reconstruction... the late 1700s and the late 1800s. While so much can be said about these men and their influence on politics, culture and literature, the one common element of their lives and times that sticks with me is simply this:

Death.

We forget, in our padded modern existence, simply how hard life was... and how normal (almost expected) it was to witness the death of one's siblings and children. Consider:

- Mark Twain was one of seven children. Three died in childhood, one at the age of 20 (and Twain himself was largely bedridden for the first four years of his life).

- Abraham and Mary Lincoln had four sons. Only one made it to adulthood.

- Though John Adams himself lived to the age of 90, his daughter, "Nabby," died of breast cancer as a young woman, and his son, Charles, died of alcoholism.

- In addition to a stillborn son, Thomas and Martha Jefferson saw three daughters die before the age of 3.

Does a study exist that correlates premature experience with loved ones' deaths with leadership qualities... or something even less tangible: personal character? It makes one wonder, what childhood events will the biographers of future American presidents and literati be relegated to unearthing in making the case for their subjects' future greatness? The traumatic experience of getting one of their Twitter accounts canceled when they were nine?

Bring back small pox! Resurrect the bilious fever! God Bless America!

6 comments:

mf said...

Buzz kill.
Who's going to comment on comments about death?
Well, other than me, I guess.

Anonymous said...

The comment that death was an integral part of everyday life in previous centuries is an excellent observation and a concept, imho, worth mulling over frequently.
DK

mf said...

Well, you screenwriter guys are the experts on the zeitgeist. Far be it for me to suggest death may not be a big seller...

Vegas Gopher said...

Changing the channel a bit ... have you read "Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell? You'd love it -- especially the audiobook, which includes guest readers Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien and a few others you'll recognize. Lots of great discussion of historical figures, and of course, death.

Marc Conklin said...

I haven't... thought I've wanted to. I think I gave that book to my dad, and he was just confused by it.

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