Daniel LaChance, LAPA/Perkins Fellow; Emory University

Executing Whiteness: Popular Representations of Capital Punishment in the United States, 1915-1940

Date: 
Mon, 04/21/2014
Location: 
4:30-6 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall

Please join us for a LAPA Seminar with Daniel LaChance, LAPA/Perkins Fellow and Assistant Professor of History at Emory University.  His commentator is Peter Brooks, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar in the University Center for Human Values and the Department of Comparative Literature.

As always, the LAPA format asks that seminar participants familiarize themselves with the paper in advance. The commentator will open the session by summarizing the main themes in the paper and presenting some topics for discussion. The author then has the right of first response before we open to the floor for questions. The seminar will end with a brief reception in the Kerstetter Room, giving everyone a chance to mingle and meet.

Abstract: "Over the course of the nineteenth century, elites in the United States increasingly sought to privatize executions and rationalize execution protocols. The source of this change is well known to historians of punishment: a fear that public executions had become unwieldy spectacles drove state actors to move these events into jail yards, at first, and then, with the advent of new technologies, into the interior of centralized prisons that were often far from the county in which the crime had occurred. The centralization of executions and the rationalization of execution protocols reflected and reinforced a more bureaucratic image of the state as an abstract entity run by professionals operating in rule-bound roles rather than particular actors governing in an unsystematic way. After this period of change, the aesthetics of the execution ceremony had so thoroughly changed that abolitionist critics were beginning, by the late 1950s, to cite their hyper-rationality as evidence of their inhumanity. But if changes to the modes, protocols, and settings of state killing seemed to diminish the recognition of human dignity in the nation’s execution chambers, they were countered by the existence and, with the birth of film, the expansion of popular renderings of the death penalty aimed at preserving the sacredness of the execution ceremony. Fictional and nonfictional execution stories, disproportionately centered around the execution of white men, offered evidence to those who did not have direct access to executions that modernity had not fully captured the soul of punishment. In newspapers, on stage, and on screen, accounts of condemned men surrounded the institution of capital punishment with a melodramatic buffer that maintained executions as events in which the humanity of the state that killed and the condemned who died was constantly foregrounded, even as execution modes and protocols themselves became rationalized and machine-like."

Daniel LaChance is Assistant Professor of History at Emory University.  His work examines the sources, meaning, and effects of the “punitive turn” in the United States, the ratcheting up of incarceration and other forms of harsh punishment in the late 20th century. Articles he has written on this topic have appeared in the journals Law and Social Inquiry and Punishment and Society. In 2011, his dissertation, “Condemned to Be Free: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States, 1945-Present” won the University of Minnesota’s Best Dissertation Award in the Arts and Humanities and was one of two finalists for the Distinguished Dissertation Award given by the National Council of Graduate Schools. The work, currently being revised for publication as a book by the University of Chicago Press, examines the decline of the American death penalty in the years following World War II, its revival in the 1970s, and its subsequent use over the past thirty years. In it, he argues that shifting ideas about freedom are embedded in the way that Americans have talked about and used capital punishment.  LaChance earned his B.A. in English from Carleton College and his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Prior to his appointment to Emory, he was an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Peter Brooks, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar in the University Center for Human Values and the Department of Comparative Literature, joined the Princeton faculty in 2008 after many decades of teaching at Yale, where he was Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature. He has published on narrative and narrative theory, on the 19th and 20th century novel, mainly French and English, and, more recently, on the interrelations of law and literature. He is the author of several books, including Enigmas of Identity (2011), Henry James Goes to Paris (2007), Realist Vision (2005), Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (2000),Psychoanalysis and Storytelling (1994), Body Work (1993), Reading for the Plot (1984), The Melodramatic Imagination (1976) and The Novel of Worldliness (1969), and also two novels. He co-edited, with Paul Gewirtz,Law’s Stories (1996) and, with Alex Woloch, Whose Freud? (2000). He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Comparative Literature and Yale Journal of Law & Humanities. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, New York Review of Books, The New Republic, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, Yale Law JournalBoston University Law Review, and elsewhere.  

Funded by the Bouton Law Lecture Fund