Chilana on Koretsky, 'Death Rights: Romantic Suicide, Race and the Bounds of Liberalism'

Deanna P. Koretsky
Richa Chilana

Deanna P. Koretsky. Death Rights: Romantic Suicide, Race and the Bounds of Liberalism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2021. 203 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-8289-7.

Reviewed by Richa Chilana (Assistant Professor, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies) Published on H-Death (May, 2022) Commissioned by Khyati Tripathi (Assistant Professor, School of Liberal Studies, UPES University)

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Death Rights: Romantic Suicide, Race and the Bounds of Liberalism deploys race, an oft-ignored critical lens, to look at a crucial period in the history of English literature, that is, the Romantic age. Although there has been a contestation of the Romantic canon and an engagement with the politics of canon formation in the recent past, particularly by feminist critics by the inclusion of women writers in the canon, the question of race and the link between Romanticism and bourgeois white male supremacy has rarely been raised or if raised, not deeply engaged with.

The trope of the Romantic artist who is a misunderstood and tortured genius has been affirmed and reaffirmed at different historical moments as can be seen in the discussions revolving around the suicides of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen and American singer/artist Kurt Cobain. It is crucial to engage with the perception of suicide at the turn of the nineteenth century and the reasons why this cultural narrative is still prevalent since the romanticization and glamourization of certain kinds of suicides is deeply ideological. The formidable nature of the myth of Thomas Chatterton obfuscates the fact that Bristol, Chatterton’s city, was a major site of trade in enslaved Africans. To look at suicide as an extension or a consequence of the brilliance of an artist is to elide the horrendous nature of their lived realities which propelled them to end their lives. Additionally, the aestheticization or transformation of a suicide into a work of art makes the suicide more palatable or easier to grapple with. Taking a cue from René Giard’s Violence and the Sacred (1972), the book interrogates the mythic image of the Romantic artist as a tortured, lonely genius.

An interest in “brooding sensuality and irremediable malaise” (p. 2) characterized both canonical and popular narratives. The “man of feeling” such as Thomas Chatterton, who died of an arsenic overdose at the age of seventeen, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1790) cast a looming shadow over the Romantic age. John Keats’s Endymion (1818), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Monody on the Death of Thomas Chatterton” (1790), and William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” (1807) recall Chatterton’s suicide. David Hume’s “On Suicide” (1756) modernized and secularized the discussion by talking about suicide as a choice governed by reason and an individual’s right to do what he wishes with his life, a choice that is only available to the subjects of liberal modernity since the dispossessed are denied ownership of their lives and bodies. Not only does suicide feature in the epitaphs of Honoré de Balzac, Keats, and Lord Byron, but suicide notes were published in English newspapers at the end of the eighteenth century and there was a raging debate about how to deny dignity to those who died by suicide. The book cogently argues how the theme of suicide in British abolitionist writings indicates how liberal modernity enables the suffering and death of certain sections of the society at the expense of others. The suicidal slave of British abolitionist texts who “chooses to die” or deploys his capacity of reason to kill himself is considered capable of inclusion among and worthy of rights accorded to liberal subjects. A sentimental depiction of death is richly illuminating of a myopic sensibility that does not critique the complicity of the subjects of liberalism and its structural or systemic flaws.

Koretsy is conscious of her own positionality, indicating how she speaks with and to and not as and for. She also makes a strong case for a dialogue between Black studies and Romantic studies since both grapple with the French, American, and Haitian revolutions and theorize about freedom, human rights, societal transformation, and so on. This dialogue will also help in understanding how ideas circulating during the Romantic age have shaped modern patterns of thinking about racial differences.

The book includes five chapters: “Liberty and Death,” “Chained to Life and Misery,” “Writ in Water,” “In Sympathy,” and “Marvelous Boys.” The first chapter looks at “the romantic fetishization of suicide” (p. 45) by analyzing Thomas Day and John Bicknell’s The Dying Negro (1772), which reimagines Somerset v. Stewart (1772). While James Somerset won his freedom in the legal battle, The Dying Negro changes the narrative by replacing freedom with suicide, which is then used to demonstrate the ability to reason and hence the eligibility to be a liberal subject. While the poem was not the first to depict the suicide of a Black man, its popularity racialized the discourse of rights, personhood, and suicide. The chapter also critiques the inability of the poem to represent the subject and the cultures it proposes to represent. The distinctive nature of the attitude toward suicide, for instance the idea of transmigration among African-identified people, is conspicuous by its absence.

“Chained to Life and Misery” looks at Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Robinson’s Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), and Claire de Duras’s Ourika (1823). The chapter analyzes the portrayal of suicidal Black women’s lives in literary works by white women authors. While the previous chapter revealed how the ability to reason makes a Black man worthy of inclusion, Black women are denied even that luxury. By drawing upon feminist theory, the chapter argues how the authors of these works share more with other subjects of the liberal imaginary than with Black women. Black women are perceived as irrational and excessive in their expression of feelings. The chapter also looks at the memoir of a formerly enslaved woman, Mattie J. Jackson’s The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866). This juxtaposition indicates how Jackson rejects the recurring tropes in white women’s writings.

“Writ in Water,” in a manner similar to the discussion of The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, contests European modes of narrating Black lives and deaths by looking at The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). By drawing upon a relational rather than an individualistic frame, the chapter offers a fresh perspective on Black lives and deaths. The notion of suicide discussed by Equiano is also drawn upon to analyze the poetry of John Keats.

“In Sympathy” offers an interesting take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) by focusing on the theme of suicide—a theme also present in the work of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who looked at suicide as “an act of political resistance” (p. 99). Mary Shelley’s half-sister, Fanny Inlay, and Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, both died by suicide. Despite the close proximity of Mary Shelley to all these lives, Koretsky wonders why the theme of suicide has not been grappled with in greater detail in the scholarship on her oeuvre. In the novel, the suicidal nature of the creature is a response to the denial of recognition and accommodation within existing social structures. While the novel offers a critique of liberalism, it falls short of imagining a world outside and beyond liberal modernity where the creature could exist. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Victor LaValle’s reworking of Frankenstein, in the form of a comic book series called Destroyer (2017), in which an African American mother brings her child, who had been killed by the police, back to life.

The last chapter, “Marvelous Boys,” looks at Chatterton’s death and argues that the suicide of this pre-Romantic poet created the myth of the brilliant, ahead-of-his-time genius artist, a myth that significantly shaped the Romantic canon. Using circumstantial evidence, the chapter puts forth the possibility of Chatterton’s death having been an accident instead of a suicide. Koretsky also looks at Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which she sees as a “recirculation of romantic literary tropes” (p. 124). For all these artists, the nature of their deaths, which happened to be suicide, mediates any kind of an engagement with their works.

This timely and sensitively written book raises pertinent questions about the possibilities and limits of the liberal imaginary that obliterates difference and the exclusionary politics of who is considered worthy of personhood, agency, citizenship, humanity, and inclusion. More importantly, the book does this at a time when, as per the report published in 2019 by the US Congressional Black Caucus, suicide is the second leading cause of death among African American teenagers. The Black Lives Matter movement makes the book even more relevant for scholars interested in the Romantic age, intersectional identities, and the philosophy and politics of liberal modernity.

Citation: Richa Chilana. Review of Koretsky, Deanna P., Death Rights: Romantic Suicide, Race and the Bounds of Liberalism. H-Death, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL:

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