COOL CLASSES: “Against Death: Opposing Capital Punishment in American Literature”

An English course examining the cultural history of American responses to the death penalty through novels, poems, plays, essays, photographs, songs, cartoons, and films

Class name:Against Death: Opposing Capital Punishment in American Literature”

Taught By: Assistant Professor of English Lindsay Reckson

Here’s what Reckson has to say about the course:

This class is about the cultural history of American responses to the death penalty, beginning in the 1840s with the transition from public to private executions, and ending with a series of Supreme Court cases that halted and reinstated capital punishment in the 1970s. That sounds like a legal history, but in fact we’re encountering the death penalty as it circulates in novels, poems, plays, essays, photographs, songs, cartoons, and films. There are any number of ways to tell the story of capital punishment in America, and the hope is that by examining the terrain of culture—and specifically literary and visual culture—we can begin to approach the death penalty as a representational problem and provocation, a site where aesthetic and ethical issues collide. So we’re looking at how literature brings into relief the intersection between the death penalty and issues of race, class, gender, and religion; how execution technologies and media technologies have informed one another; how historical executions have been shaped and reshaped in cultural memory; and (more broadly) how the “truth” of an event emerges through the stories we tell about it.

I hope my students take away the sense that culture is a contested field: the space where power formations can be hardened and re-circulated as well as revised and contested. And I hope they discover what I’m still discovering: that writing about culture can be an important avenue towards social justice and community building.

The course had a long personal and intellectual gestation. It grows out of time spent living and teaching in Florida, California, and Texas—states with the highest numbers of inmates on death row and the highest number of annual executions. More immediately, my desire to teach the course was inspired by the “I am Troy Davis” campaign, an effort to halt the 2011 execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. Like a of lot of people, I watched that effort unfold on television, and was utterly compelled by the visual, rhetorical, and physical choreography of protest. At the time, I was preparing to teach Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1893) to undergraduates at UT Austin, and the resonances between Twain’s super sardonic take on punishment in post-Reconstruction America and the terms of the protest were striking. It didn’t take long before I started wondering about the archive of American writing around capital punishment, and discovering a small but important set of critics thinking about these works. But it wasn’t until I arrived at Haverford that teaching the course became a real possibility, in part because we have a trove of anti-capital punishment literature in the Quaker Collections, and in part because social justice issues are so central to our community. Being able to teach this course across the English department and the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Program has been a tremendous opportunity: a chance to think about discipline in expansive, interdisciplinary terms, and to do so in a place that has a rich history of writing and thinking about capital punishment.


See what other courses the English Department is offering this semester.
Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.