Necro Citizenship

Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Necro Citizenship

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 17 illustrations Published: September 2001

Author: Russ Castronovo

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In Necro Citizenship Russ Castronovo argues that the meaning of citizenship in the United States during the nineteenth century was bound to—and even dependent on—death. Deploying an impressive range of literary and cultural texts, Castronovo interrogates an American public sphere that fetishized death as a crucial point of political identification. This morbid politics idealized disembodiment over embodiment, spiritual conditions over material ones, amnesia over history, and passivity over engagement.
Moving from medical engravings, séances, and clairvoyant communication to Supreme Court decisions, popular literature, and physiological tracts, Necro Citizenship explores how rituals of inclusion and belonging have generated alienation and dispossession. Castronovo contends that citizenship does violence to bodies, especially those of blacks, women, and workers. “Necro ideology,” he argues, supplied citizens with the means to think about slavery, economic powerlessness, or social injustice as eternal questions, beyond the scope of politics or critique. By obsessing on sleepwalkers, drowned women, and other corpses, necro ideology fostered a collective demand for an abstract even antidemocratic sense of freedom. Examining issues involving the occult, white sexuality, ghosts, and suicide in conjunction with readings of Harriet Jacobs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Frances Harper, Necro Citizenship successfully demonstrates why Patrick Henry's “give me liberty or give me death” has resonated so strongly in the American imagination.


“Drawing on a vast range of material, Castronovo’s book shows how notions of citizenship are bound up with tropes of death in the post-revolutionary public sphere, and that exposing the tropes of death one can see discussions over slavery and suffrage in a new and valuable light. Its range of reference is indeed compelling. . . . [P]rovocative insights and [a] compelling argument.” — Virginia Quarterly Review

"Necro Citizenship is a rich book. . . . One walks away from an encounter with the book grasping a firmer sense of the nineteenth century’s alterity—always a useful prospect, I think—but with some sense as well of the continuities that bring us from there to here. . . . [C]ompelling. . . ." — Jay Grossman, South Atlantic Review

"Castronovo has written a fascinating, deeply researched, challenging, and highly original account of the link between citizenship and death in nineteenth-century America. . . . Necro Citizenship should be required reading for anyone interested in the reform impulse." — John Stauffer, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Castronovo’s important project draws on an array of diverse theoretical influences and tells a compelling story about public culture in the nineteenth-century United States. Necro Citizenship reminds us of the importance of remembering American histories of dispossession, privatization, passivity, and amnesia. Detailing political murder and social death does powerful work toward imagining a vital, contestatory public sphere."

— Molly McGarry , Journal of American History

“Liberty and death? Citizenship and necrophilia? The conjunction ‘and’ is shocking and is meant to shock. Russ Castronovo sees American political life as the burial ground of many corpses, literal as well as metaphoric. With ruthless determination he digs these up, examines their tell-tale remains, and, in the process, offers a trenchant critique of some consequences of American democracy.” — Wai Chee Dimock, author of Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Russ Castronovo is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Miami. He is the author of Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations


Introduction: Democray’s Graveyard

1. Political Necrophilia

Freedom and the Longing for Dead Citizenship

2. “The Slavery of Man to Himself”

White Male Sexuality, Self-Reliance, and Bondage

3. “That Half-Living Corpse”

Female Mediums, Séances, and the Occult Public Sphere

4. The “Black Arts” of Citizenship

Africanist Origins of White Interiority

5. De-Naturalizing Citizenship



Works Cited

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2772-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2775-2
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