Speakers of the Dead resurrects Walt Whitman’s humanist spirit

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Set against a backdrop of murder, grave robbing, and civic corruption in 1843 New York, J. Aaron Sanders’s debut novel, Speakers of the Dead, creates an alternate history in which death is the catalyst that transforms Walt Whitman from a struggling journalist and mediocre writer into the preeminent poet of American life.

When Lena Stowe, the co-founder of the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan, is found holding the eviscerated body of her husband, Abraham, authorities believe she murdered him as vindication for his alleged affair with and killing of a cigar girl. In a futile attempt to avert her sentenced execution, Walt Whitman uses his position as a reporter for the Aurora to investigate and publicize events that led to the Stowes’ misfortunes. To honor his friends’ deaths and uphold their legacy of promoting medical progress, Walt embarks on a quest to exonerate both parties — clearing Abraham of the botched abortion that killed the cigar girl Mary Rogers and absolving Lena of Abraham’s murder. Intending to find those responsible while aiding the Stowes’ students to keep the Women’s Medical College open, Walt delves into the New York underworld of the Resurrection Men, grave robbers who traffic in the procurement and trade of dead bodies, only to discover the length of their political reach.

In reconstructing the conditions that created this racket, Sanders cites both the legal and theological discourses regarding human dissection. Whitman suspects that Abraham’s murder resulted in part from his participation in drafting the controversial Bone Bill legislation, which pushed for legalizing the dissection of the dead. Although experimentation on cadavers would advance anatomical knowledge, the Bone Bill would not protect the legal acquisition of cadavers for the medical profession until 1854. This delay was largely due to the religious opposition to dissection, which Sanders portrays in the riotous attacks on the Women’s Medical College from mobs in protest of dissection practices, who claim the desecration of the body prevents the soul’s resurrection, thereby denying one life after death. Whether informed by legality or doctrine, Sanders stresses the repressive influence of conviction in such rigid laws or unwavering faith.

A historical mystery concerning the phenomenon of body snatching could have been equally effective without Walt Whitman as a protagonist, yet Whitman’s philosophy, most famously proclaimed in “Song of Myself,” is the perfect response to the arguments posed about the sanctity of the human form. Instead of privileging the body in death, Whitman views it as a natural, cyclical regeneration of the earth, in which “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses / And to die is different than what anyone supposed, and luckier.” Indeed, the crusade to clear the Stowes’ names epitomizes the democratic nature of Whitman’s poetic oeuvre. In striving for truth and justice, Sanders’s Whitman becomes a mouthpiece for the marginalized, from wrongfully convicted criminals to prostitutes of ill repute to the women transgressing into a male profession. Sanders also gives representation to homosexuality, an element that is commonly either absent or aberrant in crime fiction. By featuring a relationship between the fictional Whitman and his Aurora editor, Henry Saunders, as crucial to both character and plot development, Sanders voices the same inclusionary, egalitarian principles as Whitman himself.

Beyond Whitman’s characterization, Speakers of the Dead is rife with allusions to the literary milieu of the time and thus will certainly appeal to American literature enthusiasts. Sanders includes references to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental, transparent eyeball, a belief that influenced much of Whitman’s work, and even a cameo from Edgar Allan Poe, whose short story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” attempted to solve the real-life murder of Mary Rogers. Sanders does an admirable job of glossing these personages within the text and partially addresses this intertextuality in a concluding Author’s Note. Yet the novel could benefit from a critical introduction that places Whitman within this historical context in order to attract a more general readership that may be unacquainted with Whitman’s work or otherwise deterred by esoteric poetry and philosophy.

With its convergence of realism, romanticism, and transcendentalism, Speakers of the Dead mimics the aesthetics and movements that Whitman’s poetics so seamlessly intersect. J. Aaron Sanders crafts a compelling mystery that thus contains multitudes, as it cleverly frames a disreputable moment in American history through the appeal of the nation’s most beloved poet.

Speakers of the Dead; 320 pages; Plume Books, 2016.

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