"Death in Public" /// C19 '24 Panel Proposal

deadline for submissions: 
August 21, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Lucy Wallitsch & Alex Anderson
contact email: 

Please consider submitting an abstract for the following panel proposal for The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists' (C19's) 2024 conference in Pasadena. Feel free to reach out with any questions.


Death in Public

In “Sex in Public,” Berlant and Warner urged us to consider how sex—something seemingly private—is indeed “mediated by publics.” Similar to Berlant and Warner, we investigate how the concept of death, broadly defined, was determined, imagined, augmented, and regulated as a public spectacle throughout the nineteenth century.

Although our contemporary image of a good death is often one of relatives and loved ones gathered around a hospital bed in hushed silence, or the calm stillness of the hospice room, the American public is simultaneously entranced by the idea of spectacular death. Years into a resurgence of the popularity of true crime, it remains the most widely listened-to podcast genre in the United States. On social media platforms such as TikTok, interest in natural burials, morbid curiosities, serial killers, and the paranormal has been used to scam viewers into buying apps, supplements, and home security devices. Offline, the COVID-19 pandemic has politicized and publicized death and sickness on a national and global scale, in a way perhaps last seen during the 1917 flu epidemic. In one age of public interest in death, we look back to another. 

Biological, social, and political deaths became increasingly public in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, both as a result of highly visible, recognizable violence, such as chattel slavery, the Civil War, and presidential assassinations, as well as more insidious cultural and institutional phenomena, such as the rise of Native American residential schools, tenement housing, and asylums in the second half of the century. These events inspired interests in mesmerism and esoteric death rituals at the time, such as spirit photography and séances, that permeated contemporary religious and literary imaginations. In the twenty-first century, humanities scholars continue to respond to these events, nuancing their understandings of death and dying and revealing how the increasingly public nature of these phenomena enable them to enter new contexts and adopt new meanings.

This panel seeks projects that investigate death and the public imagination throughout the nineteenth century, including but not limited to those that consider:

  • Infectious diseases and epidemics (smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, measles, malaria, etc.) 

  • Public displays of grief and mourning

  • Imaginations of the “good” and “bad” death

  • Eugenics 

  • Social or political death, imprisonment, or institutionalization

  • Chronic illness, terminal illness, and/or disability

  • Ghosts and hauntings, mediums and mesmerism

  • “The little death”

  • Public deaths (murders, assassinations, executions, etc.)

  • Death in/and/of the Archive

  • Queer temporalities, queer deaths

If you would like to be considered for this panel, please email a 250-word abstract as well as a brief biography to Lucy Wallitsch (lucy.wallitsch@emory.edu) and Alex Anderson (ande1204@purdue.edu) by 5:00 p.m. ET on Monday, August 21.