Memento Mori: Photographic Memory and Temporality in Literary Death Open Access

Elkins, Madison (Summer 2023)

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From the time of its public release around 1839, photography has challenged prevailing conceptualizations of death, time, and memory. Among these were the ideas that objects and people move through time in a linear, chronological fashion; that the faces of the dead cannot be depicted or recalled with exactitude; that memories are internal and impermanent. A foundational claim of this dissertation is that photography also transformed the literary representation of these concepts.

Beginning with photography’s invention and ending in the late 1970s just before digital photography became commercially popular, I investigate textual narratives of photography in American fiction to chart some of the ways photography transformed the structure and construction of time and memory in literary representations of death. Each chapter takes up a common cultural photographic practice (postmortem photography, family photography, and high-speed photography) and pairs it with one or more literary texts that center death, dying, or remembrance of the dead. Working within established rubrics of photography theory, my project centers photography as a crucial element in literary representations of death. In literature, as in life, death is often the crucible in which time and recollection are pressured, reformed, and crystallized. If we consider literary narratives that delve into death, we find that they turn to photography to blur the boundaries of death and life; to expand memory beyond the internal, individual mind; to collapse the narrative planes of past, present, and future; to wrench nonnarrative, unspeakable death into narrative spokenness; to map the unmoored.

Table of Contents


Introduction: "How these shadows last"

Chapter 1

“Time, all at once”: Postmortem Photographic Temporality in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables


Chapter 2

“Dust, perishable as the flesh”: Family Photography and Memory in Absalom, Absalom! and Old Mortality


Chapter 3

“The miraculous hint”: Photographic Time, Death, and Duration in Cynthia Ozick’s “Shots”


Works Cited

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