Dead men walking get the outraged writing

December 19, 2003

As the Modern Language Association prepares for its annual convention in San Diego, December -30, The THES looks at key themes and contributors

Opposition to judicial killing has a long literary history. Nancy Berke offers a guide to its various strands

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the leftwing Jewish couple who were tried and convicted for "conspiracy to commit espionage" in 1953. In the intervening 50 years, Americans have seen a death-penalty moratorium, enacted via a landmark 1972 case, overturned in 1976. Since then, more than 850 prisoners have been executed, and 3,700 or so sit on death row.

Fifty years after the Rosenbergs' execution, it is time to speculate on the progress of a society in which we still put people to death, and in which political and "racial" difference can still influence sentencing.

There is a long history of written dissent that is fundamental to the campaigns to free political prisoners and reverse racially motivated capital punishment decisions. Writers, professional and amateur alike, helped create awareness not only about individual prisoners' contested guilt but also about the inhumane practice of judicial killing.

A large segment of early-20th-century anti-death-penalty literature belonged to capital-case defence committees involved in freeing political radicals and wrongly convicted minorities. Poets, novelists, journalists, editors and legal scholars helped not only to protest against capital convictions but also to write the histories of such cases. Consider the international campaign to free Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in 19. The case produced more than 1,000 pieces of literature: poems, stories, plays, novels, journalistic exposes, not to mention countless newspaper articles, international letters of support and, of course, the letters that Sacco and Vanzetti wrote themselves.

In addition to this, there was also a kind of interdisciplinarity of text that figured in some defence campaigns. Writings against the death penalty could and did coexist with the latest in art and letters, giving this discourse an additional medium outside the confines of the labour press and defence-committee pamphlets. Avant-gardist Margaret Anderson, for example, contributed to the defence of Tom Mooney, a California labour organiser falsely convicted of planting a bomb at a 1916 rally, by donating space in The Little Review for discussion of the case.

Written opposition to the death penalty is also inextricably tied to America's ethnic and working-class history. Moreover, because the racial apartheid of America's South in the years leading up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act deemed interracial "rape" an act punishable by death, anti-death-penalty agitation was particularly important to anti-racist efforts. For example, in the early 1930s, in an unusual alliance with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Communist Party began a protracted campaign to free nine youths in Scottsboro, Alabama, who had been sentenced to die because of rape allegations by two white women. Rank-and-file communists and NAACP members wrote letters of protest and urged working people and intellectuals around the world to do the same.

Equally central to these campaigns were the letters written by non-professional writers. The movements to free Mooney, the Scottsboro youths and Willie McGee, another black man accused of raping a white woman, used writing as both propaganda to free the condemned and principled calls of conscience against judicial killing.

The work of the Irish immigrant poet Lola Ridge (1873-1941) is emblematic of a body of protest literature that links creative writing with the polemical aims of other written opposition to the death penalty. Ridge's attention to social themes such as ghettoisation, labour exploitation, racially motivated murder and lynching earned her respect among some modernist poets. Unlike many, she was willing to risk aesthetic fashion to explore - to invoke W. E. B. Du Bois - "the problem(s) of the twentieth century".

Ridge was one of the few American modernists to pursue judicial killing as a subject worthy of poetic description. Her poem Electrocution , first published in the New Orleans-based journal The Double Dealer in 1921, compels her audience to imagine themselves in the position of the condemned, strapped to the chair as the first jolts of electricity hit. Her words sear: "He shudders... Feeling on the shaven spot/ The probing wind, that stabs him to a thought/ Of storm-drenched fields in a white foam of light...".

Ridge uses language to represent the visual brutality of mechanised death, and she reveals how literary language can augment political debate on judicial killing. Ridge also became an effective propagandist when she contributed a protest poem to the Tom Mooney Molders' Defense Committee.

Her poem Stone Face was set in large type along with an enlargement of Mooney's prison mug-shot and printed on poster board for the express purpose of duplication and distribution. This was a way to humanise Mooney, who was eventually exonerated.

Ridge contributed to a tradition of anti-death-penalty literature within which the copious writing about the Rosenberg case needs to be understood.

The popularity of Mumia Abu-Jamal's 1996 work Live from Death Row powerfully presents the incarcerated as abolition advocate. Even the academic community has been busy writing against the death penalty. In 1997, Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher and father of "deconstruction", wrote to Bill Clinton, who was then US president, to seek a reconsideration of Abu-Jamal's death sentence.

In the electronic age, one has only to log on to the websites of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty or Amnesty International to see how opposition to judicial killing is centrally expressed through highly specialised campaigns. Reports produced by death-penalty opponents, legal scholars and journalists create awareness about the randomness of some death sentences. A prime example occurred in 2003 in the state of Illinois, where revelations of innocent men having been put to death convinced the governor to commute the sentences of all death-row inmates before his term expired.

The websites themselves generate an audience of polemical writers through letter-writing campaigns, urging all those who log on to continue the long-practised cultural tradition of joining professional polemicists in written opposition to capital punishment.

Nancy Berke is the author of Women Poets on the Left (University Press of Florida, 2001). She is presiding over the panel "From the Rosenbergs to Mumia Abu-Jamal: Writing against the Death Penalty" on December 30.

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