In Life and Death: The Sacred Ties of Friendship in the Early United States

AHA Session 267
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 109 (Hynes Convention Center)
Lucia McMahon, William Patterson University
Mary L. Kelley, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

Facebook, MySpace, Friendster--some contemporary commentators have lamented the attenuation of friendship through these popular social networking sites that, these critics contend, devalue friendship by reducing it to superficial status updates and by making it into a kind of competitive sport where participants accumulate more and more "friends." Such critiques often take the form of the jeremiad, lamenting the loss of deeper, more genuine friendships from the past. Yet practices and ideals of friendship in the past were just as much sites of debate as they are today. Past generations too argued and worried about the reach, implications, and responsibilities of friendship.

The papers on this panel explore various and changing ideals of friendship in pre-Civil War America. They examine nineteenth-century Americans' struggles to define the bounds of friendship--i.e. who could and should an individual befriend--and to understand what friends owed one another. Cassandra Good's paper analyzes how men and women of the early republic worked to extend friendship across the boundaries of sex, sometimes by making it a relationship of religious fellowship and spiritual connection. Even those friendships not specifically tied to religion were purified of romance through ritualized practices. What individuals owed to friends and family dead, living, and not yet born is the subject of Alea Henle's presentation, which examines how Americans dealt with the private papers left by their deceased loved ones. Friends and heirs debated whether to destroy private papers or donate them to historical societies, weighing concerns of privacy against growing interest in historical preservation. Robert K. Nelson's paper, too, considers friendships between the living and the dead. Examining Spiritualism's relationship to antebellum reform ideology, his paper analyzes the political and religious implications of a particular ideal of friendship espoused by a cadre of radical reformers who argued that friendship could and should be applied and practiced universally, remaking society by extending it across the boundaries of race and sex and even death.

In different ways, all three of these papers examine "the sacred side of the social," to quote the conference's theme, exploring the ways the changing and contested "sacred" practices and ideals of friendship both shaped and were shaped by the politics, society, and historical memory of nineteenth-century America. This panel may appeal to scholars interested in friendship, religion, and the history of the book.

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