The author’s corner: Selbstmörder und freiheit edition


University of Chicago Press, 2015

Don’t miss John Fea’s interview of Terri L. Snyder about her brand-new bookThe Power to Die:  Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015)., which I learned of via the ubiquitous and always-in-the-know Liz Covart on Twitter.

In the course of the interview, Snyder outlines how she came about her ideas for her second book in the course of researching her first book, Brabbilng Women:  Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia (Cornell University Press, 2003; Cornell Paperback, 2013):

During my research for my first book, I was reading county court records from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia and noticed reports of suicide. Most of these accounts described self-destruction by young, indentured servants who died under bleak circumstances; their stories both absorbed and troubled me. I started collecting any references to suicide that I came across  — from courts and legislatures, newspapers and periodicals, slave narratives and plantations records, for instance – and amassed a surprising amount of material.  I ultimately focused on the suicides of enslaved men and women, however, because my research revealed that their deaths were understood, reacted to, and remembered distinctly, in ways that differed from those of free European Americans.

Read the whole thing–her book covers a great deal more than just suicide and slavery, as it covers the entire colonial period, delves into European and African religious traditions and their interpretations of suicide, and addresses the ways in which suicides among enslaved people become politicized in the era of the American Revolution.  Echoing the alleged banner of Gabriel Prosser’s thwarted rebellion of 1800, “Death or Liberty,” which itself echoed Patrick Henry’s famous cry of “Give me liberty or give me death,” it was death or liberty for the people Snyder writes about.  According to Snyder, “acts of self-destruction by enslaved people carried competing cultural meanings, exposed the paradox of personhood and property that was fundamental to the legal institution of slavery, and were a political force in challenging attitudes both toward slavery and suicide.”

I just ordered a copy for my university’s library–do a girlfriend a solid today on #FollowWomenWednesday and request a copy for your university’s library, too!  (You can also follow Snyder on Twitter at @snyder_terri.  I do!)

2 thoughts on “The author’s corner: Selbstmörder und freiheit edition

  1. Wow! Extremely cool stuff. I remember seeing advance notice of the book somewhere else,and thinking I should chase it down, but it’s very handy to be reminded. Thank you!

    And yes, I will put in a purchase request to my library, since the price is a bit steep (normal enough for an academic book).


  2. Some years back I was trying to frame a possible essay on an important Englishman who died in late-colonial New York under curious circumstances that were officially classified as suicide, a conclusion that I strongly doubted on circumstantial grounds. In looking at the literature on the phenomenon itself, I found that… there wasn’t any, save for a short-lived irruption of interest in Europe a generation ago. I mean, in an otherwise seemingly definitive multi-volume _Encyclopedia of American Social History_, there were more entries in a chapter on “Death” about “Pet Cemeteries” than there were about suicide. The essay got shelved, pro temp, but my specific qualms about the interpretation of the episode in question–that it was a homicide, an assassination, really, not a suicide–and my more general wonderment at the historiographical invisibility of the practice, remain in place. Maybe this book will open the subject up.


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