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The following review appeared 18 July 2016 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Twenty-three year old Daniel Bush, were he to read this book, would not be able to put it down, and would be grateful. He'd be proud of his father for writing it. But the grim truth is that Daniel Bush will never read this book. There is no twenty-three year old Daniel Bush; he died seventeen years ago at the age of six. Like every other dead child he did not leave this life by himself: He took with him the hopes and dreams of his parents, leaving the reality of their lives topsy-turvy in his wake, in complete astonishment that they did not immediately capsize and drown in the bottomless depths of grief. Unlike adults, when children step from the sunlight of this world, they cast long shadows, everlasting. Where is redemption to be found in such a shadow?
If the reader does not believe in redemption at the beginning of this book he will recognize it by the time he reaches the Epilogue and reads Hal Bush's own summary of what he set out to do: "In this book, I've shown and analyzed some of the horrors a handful of our most famous writers experienced, horrors very familiar to me. But I've also documented the constructive ways that these deaths affected the worldviews and the writings of the surviving parents. I've considered how a child's death may have influenced the direction and content of the writer's production afterward, perhaps much more than has previously been thought" (193). Redemption takes many forms, and as Bush readily admits, the writing of this book was itself an act of redemption.
This is not a speculative work of scholarship. This is a story from the front lines told by a combatant who has squarely faced death and survived to tell the tale. Somebody who has not experienced such grief firsthand could easily be misled by some of the myths clinical research has identified about the grief that follows the loss of a child. Contrary to the common myth, the wound does not scar over and completely heal. Closure never comes. Bizarre and terrifying irrational thoughts that would be considered pathological in other contexts are normal reactions to the death of a child. The physical manifestations of this grief are painful and real. All of the other elements of grief are present, as well as nightmares and magical thinking. It is not unusual for the meaning of life to be vanquished, or for the pain to increase with time instead of fading. Spiritual faith will be challenged, and faith can evaporate altogether, but it can also strengthen, as can marriages, contrary to conventional wisdom. In fact, recent studies have shown that the number of divorces due to bereavement have been wildly exaggerated. Finally, although parents sometimes grieve in different ways, it is most common for a lost child to be held in loving memory to the end of a parent's life, the parental bond enduring unbroken, generating beneficial work and a positive life rich with meaning and purpose, as most of the examples in this book illustrate.
Death will come to each of us sooner or later, but in the meantime it lurks in our literature, inspiring a steady stream of books on the topic for more than a century. The same year that Mark Twain died, his publisher issued In After Days, a collection of fascinating essays on the afterlife (and faith, and grief) by William Dean Howells, Julia Ward Howe, Henry James, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and others. Books on death in literature, or death and writers, have continued ever since. Almost simultaneous with Bush's book, Katie Riophe has published The Violet Hour, a look at how various twentieth century authors--Susan Sontag, John Updike, Maurice Sendak, Sigmund Freud, and Dylan Thomas among them--have faced death themselves. But Bush's book is clearly focused on precisely what is said in the subtitle: nineteenth century writers coping with the deaths of their children.
The five authors who are the focus of this book are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and W. E. B. Du Bois. This is a thoughtful representative cross-section of American authors who lost children and found varying degrees of redemption in their work and writings. Bush had plenty of grief-stricken nineteenth century parents to choose from: Twain's friend John Hay, who had served as Lincoln's private secretary, lost a son; and Twain's wealthy benefactor, Henry Rogers, lost a daughter only a few years before Twain lost Susy. Twain's brother Orion lost a daughter when living in Nevada. Twain didn't think James Fenimore Cooper could write authentically about Indians, but he might have given Cooper a pass on grief: Cooper lost his first son and one other child. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost a daughter, and a few years later his daughter's mother in a hideous accident caused by a carelessly dropped match by another of his daughters. James Russell Lowell lost two daughters and a son, followed by their mother, and when the Civil War came a few years later, he lost three nephews who were like sons to him. Ralph Waldo Emerson lost a son and years later had him exhumed to view the corpse, perhaps an extreme example of trying to come to grips with the reality of his loss. Ambrose Bierce lost two sons, one a suicide and the other an alcoholic. Herman Melville lost his son, a suicide just down the hall in the middle of the night. Fanny Fern and Bronson Alcott each lost a child, and the list could go on. Child mortality rates may have been high in the nineteenth century but that did not lessen the grief of parents. Bush mentions most of these other authors, but the five he chose to study in depth are well-chosen. Their lives intersect at some points, their responses to grief are interestingly similar and at times seemingly disparate, but all of them reflect the evolution of typically American responses to grief when facing the loss of a child.
Bush's introduction reviews the history of grieving in America, changing funeral rituals, evolving psychological theories on grieving, and explains what distinguishes parental grief for a lost child from other forms of grieving. The experience of death in the nineteenth century was raw and real. Children died at home instead of hospitals, and families performed their own funerals as often as did undertakers. Clergy offered spiritual support more often than psychologists prescribed how to grieve. Nineteenth century Americans confronted death and maintained positive continuing bonds with the dead through memorials, social work, and writing. But with time American responses to death became more and more clinical, professionalized, and domesticated, and the continuing bonds practiced in the nineteenth century were replaced with Freudian theory that encouraged severing ties and moving on. Death became something to be tamed and even to be made invisible. Bush points out that the culture of death is coming full circle and the "continuing bonds" --a phrase coined by Dennis Klass in Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (1996)--is being replaced by the theory of "posttraumatic growth" which recognizes the presence of the dead in the lives of the grieving and how that presence can yield constructive results out of the trauma.
But before that can happen, a death must be "realized." This word crops up repeatedly in nineteenth century accounts by those grieving a death, and had a particular meaning that is overlooked by the modern reader. Twain captured that meaning perfectly when recording his reaction to reading the telegram that informed him of Susy's death: "It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss--that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss." In these words Bush recognizes Twain as a fellow member of the club nobody wants to join. Twain's words are as clear a description as were ever written of the initial trauma that must be absorbed, confronted, processed, and eventually accepted before the reality of the loss is truly comprehended. In this context, to realize something is not merely to understand it, but to confront something and move it from a state of unreality all out of time, and make it real in the present. The clinical term for this processing period is "latency" and the process can take many forms and consume widely varying lengths of time, as demonstrated by the authors whose stories are told in this volume.
The chapter on Howells immediately precedes the chapter on Mark Twain, and their experiences are superficially parallel. Howells lost his daughter Winny in 1889, seven years before Twain lost Susy. Winny, like Susy, was a moody artistic intellectual young woman with a distinct talent for writing, and like Susy she died in her 20s with neither of her parents present. But Howells was far more nineteenth century in his response to the loss of Winny. Like Mark Twain, he frankly recorded his grief and his lost daughter haunts his writings, especially A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), as Bush expertly delineates. But unlike Twain, Howells held out hope for a reunion in some kind of afterlife, and was able to maintain a bond with his daughter in this way through his faith.
Twain's strongest comment hinting at the possibility of an afterlife came in 1889, the year Winny died, when he wrote to Livy "I don't know anything about the hereafter, but I am not afraid of it" (130), but he steadily moved away from any such belief thereafter. As Bush concludes "with the passing on of the baton from Howells to Mark Twain, do we see the radical shift from nineteenth century sentimentalism and its vague afterglow, into a modern, hardened temperament for whom reunion with the dead was itself almost certainly a dead hypothesis" (127-128). But even if they differed in their beliefs in an afterlife, they shared what Bush calls an "anti-imperial friendship" (157) and both expressed empathy for the parents of children killed in war--Mark Twain in "A War Prayer," and Howells in Editha. Also like Howells, Twain's writings, even more than a decade after Susy's death, still reflected Twain's initial response to her death. Among other works, Susy's presence may be detected in Christian Science (1907); Twain, Livy, and even Clara had blamed Susy's "unnecessary" death on "fools" who practiced mental science and spiritualism (139). Bush also makes a convincing case that even Mark Twain's late work on his Autobiography from 1906 to 1909 was prompted by a growing desire to immerse himself in the past using what Twain called a "systemless system" of autobiography that reflected his continuing struggle with a world filled with good and evil, ruled not by a just God but by an absentee landlord, with the result that Twain could not formulate a satisfactory theodicy, but instead moved toward nihilism, all the while continuing his bond with Susy by exercising his better angels, his powerful social conscience, which was Susy's legacy (162).
Twentieth century critics have sometimes treated Twain's grief over the death of Susy with some impatience, hinting that it was excessive or unhealthy, even morbid. Although Bush does not berate these critics, this book certainly provides much needed perspective, a corrective to such dismissive attitudes that reflect mid-twentieth century cultural views on grief rather than those in Twain's lifetime. Twainians will of course be most interested in the chapter on Mark Twain, and most will convince themselves to read the chapter on William Dean Howells. This review has necessarily focused on Mark Twain, and the complexities of this subject have been briefly described (and certainly over-simplified), so the reader will do well to read this book from start to finish to gain a proper context and the fullest insight. Twenty-three year old Daniel Bush (1993-1999) would have loved this book, as would have fifteen year old Colin Thomas Waters (2001-2001), the grandson of this reviewer, and so will all readers.