Trade paperback, 9″ x 6″, 352 pages. $12.00, ISBN: 1448662729
Includes: The Last Day of a Condemned Man, by Victor Hugo; Lois The Witch, by Elizabeth Gaskell; The Dead Alive, by Wilkie Collins; Billy Budd, by Herman Melville and The Seven Who Were Hanged, by Leonid Andreyev
Want to learn more about these authors and other pieces they have written about the Death Penalty? DOWNLOAD FIVE FREE ESSAYS (38 pages) that supplement this book.
From the introduction:
These are five really good stories by five really good authors.
Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed that The Last Day of a Condemned Man was “Absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” No less a theorist than Hannah Arendt described Billy Budd as the perfect exposition of “goodness beyond virtue and evil beyond vice.” Author Ernest Gaines called The Seven Who Were Hanged “just a fantastic story” while Scott Turow maintains that The Dead Alive was the inspiration for the entire legal thriller genre. And Lois The Witch? Well, that’s my favorite.
These five really good stories by five really good authors are about the death penalty.
At the peaceCENTER we lament that we live in the belly of the beast, ground zero for executions. And yet, we are not precisely advocates or activists for the abolition of the death penalty. Instead, we encourage and facilitate community conversations about difficult topics, the death penalty being one we have wrestled with for more than a decade.
In our years of teaching nonviolence we’ve found that facts and figures alone rarely influence attitudes. When a fact contradicts a deeply held belief, the belief overwhelms the fact. There’s a great exchange in Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery novel, Clouds of Witnesses, when Lord Peter Wimsey complains, “When I was a boy I always hated facts. Thought of them as nasty, hard things, all knobs. Uncompromisin’.” His manservant, Bunter, replies, “[My dear old mother] says, my lord, that facts are like cows. If you look them in the face hard enough they generally run away.” Later in the book Sayers inserts an anecdote: “A man was taken to the zoo and shown the giraffe. After gazing at it a little in silence: ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said.” Somehow, we humans interpret, dismiss or ignore the facts to keep our beliefs intact. The cows run away and we don’t believe our lying eyes as we gaze at the giraffe.
Even dialogue and debate can be counterproductive. The words dialogue and diabolical share the same Greek root: dia, meaning across. Dialogue means to speak across (legein) and diabolical to throw across (ballein.) Debate was originally a French word, debattre, meaning to fight, from de―down + battre ―to beat. Even the word discussion has disturbing roots, from the Latin dis – apart + quatere – to shake, literally “to break up.”
Discussions, debates and dialogues can have the unintended consequence of shaking us apart: solidifying our prejudices rather than opening our mind to new ideas. They can encourage us to take sides: as we craft our arguments to beat down those who disagree and in the process convince ourselves that we were right all along.
Our challenge is always to dig deeper, to see more clearly and honestly. We do this through conversation, from the Latin conversationem, “the act of living with,” literally “to turn about with,” from vertare, “to turn.”
One of the ways to start a deep conversation is through stories: personal “true” stories and fictional, “made-up” stories, which while not real, can on some level be even truer.
The arts—music, painting, theater, film and, of course, literature—are excellent media for telling stories and instigating such life-turning conversations. They crack the hard surface of facts and figures; they transcend logic; they get at the basic and universal truths. We start with a story and end with a transformation. To accomplish that, the stories and the authors have to be good—really, really good.
“All art is propaganda,” noted George Orwell. Two of the short novels in this collection ―The Last Day of a Condemned Man and The Seven Who Were Hanged ― were written by prominent opponents of the death penalty. Both Victor Hugo and Leonid Andreyev made their “propaganda” intentions explicit in their introductions. Elizabeth Gaskell, Herman Melville and Wilkie Collins were not activists (or propagandists) in the same sense as Hugo or Andreyev. Which approach is more effective? For me, the message is more lasting and profound when I have to think a little harder and delve a little deeper to figure it out for myself. My reaction when an author feels the need to write an introduction that explains what the book is really about is that he should have tried a little harder to make the story reveal its own truth.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885), perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Nôtre Dame, wrote The Last Day of a Condemned Man in 1829, when he was but 27. When France abolished the death penalty in 1981, Robert Badinter, the French minister of justice, wrote: “Victor Hugo’s dream ― ’the pure, simple, and definitive abolition of the death penalty’―had been realized. The victory was complete.” Hugo’s also wrote one short story specifically about the death penalty, Claude Gueux, in 1834.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) wrote Lois the Witch in 1861. Gaskell is best remembered for her gritty and sympathetic portraits of working class life in the cotton mills of Manchester at the beginning of the industrial revolution, notably Mary Barton and North and South. This short novel, set during the Salem Witch Trials, is perhaps her most mature and reflective work.
Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. The Dead Alive, based on a true story that he stumbled across when on an American speaking tour, was written in 1874. Collins is best known for his mystery novels, originally published as magazine serials ― The Woman in White and The Moonstone ― each chapter ending in a “cliffhanger.” He also wrote numerous novels that focused on the legal rights of women; The Women in White can be read as a treatise on women’s property rights
Herman Melville (1819-1891), the only American in the bunch, is best known for his sea stories, especially Moby Dick. Billy Budd was still a jumbled manuscript at the time of his death and was not published until 1924. It has become one of the most beloved and thought-provoking stories in world literature.
Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919) dedicated The Seven Who Were Hanged, published in 1909, to Leo Tolstoy, the most vocal of the Russian anti-death penalty activists. This story is an elegantly written plain narrative; Andreyev’s most challenging and controversial works are in the symbolist mode, more abstract and allegorical than this selection. His play King-Hunger and short story And It Came To Pass That The King Was Dead also address the death penalty in a less straightforward way.
I hope you enjoy these five really good stories by five really good writers as much as I have and that they spark your own conversations about the death penalty.