Sarah Piatt and the politics of mourning
The American poet Sarah Piatt (1836-1919) addresses crucial dilemmas of modem identity, in particular the traumatic effects of war, the complexities of racial relationships and the unsettling dynamics of urban life. Although a respected poet in her day, Piatt's work disappeared after her death from the canon of American literature, and it is only in the last five years that scholars have begun to realise the importance of her poetry and to assess its depth and scope. This thesis contributes to the process of assessing the significance of Piatt's work, and contextualises her in relation to a number of other nineteenth-century American writers, including Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Chestnut and Frederick Douglass. I focus on the rift between Piatt's Southern plantation childhood and her married life in the industrial North, and upon how the Civil War created irreconcilable conflicts and divided loyalties in her life, which are played out in her writing. I emphasise the Civil War as a moment of personal and cultural trauma, which inaugurates what I term Piatfs 'politics of mourning'. I explore her politics of mourning in relation to psychoanalytic theory. While Freud sought to rid mourning of its ambivalence and interminability, and to displace these onto melancholia, Piatt's writing blurs the boundary between them. Instead of dispensing with mourning too quickly, too easily, Piatt recognises that one cannot avoid being haunted by the past and by the dead. She engages in a dialogue with the past and explores how the desire of the dead continues to be played out by the living. In contrast to Northern writers like Phelps, Stowe and Whitman, who seek to heal the nation by appealing to the idea of sacrifice, and the pastoral, in order to console the bereaved and envisage a redeemed body politic, Piatt turns away from consolation. Instead, she takes mourning in a direction that leads towards an exploration of the uncanny, the ghost-like and the hallucinatory. She explores the stifling effects of mourning in the South, and the way in which the North buried the unpleasant realities of the war, in the process of memorialising it. Piatt remained deeply emotionally invested in the South, yet she was also very critical of the Confederate Cause, and in her work she repeatedly interrogates her own investment in an idealised version of the antebellum South. I examine the ways in which Piatt scrutinises Southern discourses of race and slavery. I focus in particular on how she seeks to articulate a language of mourning for the South while also repeatedly exposing, and destabilising Southern fictions of mastery.