Young Mortality: Grounding Early Death in the UK, 1750-1850

Stream: Session C
Date: Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Time: 3.30 pm – 5.00 pm


Terrence E Holt MD PhD Department of Social Medicine University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Young Mortality: Grounding Early Death in the UK, 1750-1850 Sen he has all my brothers sane, He will nocht let me live alane; Of force I mon his next prey be: Timor Mortis conturbat me. One of the inescapable demographic features of juvenilia studies is the prevalence of early death. Such figures as Thomas Chatterton and John Keats, Thomas Dermody or Marjory Fleming demonstrate powerfully how a focus on youth magnifies early mortality. In the historical period that saw the flowering of juvenile literary production, approximately 1750 to 1850, this effect is amplified still more by the high mortality rate in the age group involved. Arriving at an appreciation of just how early death affects our understanding of young poets requires some understanding of the phenomena involved: not just “death,” the epidemiology of which in this period is fraught with unknowns, but “early death”: we don’t really know what percentage of the population qualified as young—a problem not only of definition, but fundamentally one of data. Against the background of so much uncertainty, the irony of conflating youth and death fosters a tendency to mythologize causes of death. Consider, for instance, the ongoing controversies surrounding the deaths of Chatterton and Keats, where speculation about the role of venereal disease has revised understandings of each poet’s character. It is difficult to assign significance to death at a certain age from a specific disease without knowing something about who died when and from what—information not available to date in any coherent form relevant to juvenilia studies. The prevalence of early death and the symbolic power of child mortality affected not only later appreciations of a poet’s achievement, it also affected young writers pre-mortem, when any passing illness might signal one’s imminent end. The meditations on futurity that appear so frequently in juvenile work mean differently depending on the expectations we attribute to the writer. “Life expectancy” here takes on a different, more highly charged meaning, an index of an individual’s susceptibility to existential dread—a susceptibility partly determined by demographics. If we are to arrive at a fully historical understanding of the death of young poets—what it means to us now and what it meant for them then—it would be helpful to ground our discussions in some knowledge of what was normal at the time, what was not, what young people and their families might have expected and feared, in the face of illness or simply in contemplating their own future prospects. This paper grows out of “The Pathology of Early Promise (or) Gin and Juvenility,” which I presented at the Sixth Conference of the International Society for Literary Juvenilia at Durham University in July 2018. In that paper, I argued that critics’ understanding of a poet’s cause of death both reflected and shaped judgements of the poet’s character. But how are we to understand contemporary assessments of, say, a Dermody, without some knowledge of how common alcoholism was as a cause of death in someone Dermody’s age? Knowing whether his death was exceptional or ordinary changes our understanding, not only of the poet, but of the poet’s reputation. Similarly, discussions of venereal disease as a key to a young writer’s character ought to proceed from an understanding of the epidemiology of sexually transmitted diseases in that age group at that time. This paper deploys a medical humanities approach to offer a preliminary exploration of demographic, medical, and popular records of early mortality in the UK in the period 1750 to 1850. As parish records early in the period evolved into census data towards its end, causes of death are variably reported. But owing to the fragmentary state of medical (and lay) nosology, such records are only the beginning of the investigation. The most common cause of death listed in parish records in one rural area in the late eighteenth century was “weakness.” How many different diseases might have been embraced by such a category? Did it mean something different for a fifteen-year-old to weaken and die from when a seventy-year-old did? Would the causes have been recorded differently in different counties? The terms in use not only hide a vast difference between knowledge now and understanding then, but are only the beginning of a larger discussion: what did it mean to die of “weakness” in 1789 as compared with how we might perceive it now? We may never have a completely historicized ground for such a discussion. But the difficulty of the project is not so great that it would not be useful to attempt. What information we have can shed new light on our understanding of important figures in juvenilia studies, and help to set the field on a ground made firmer by a medically and culturally informed understanding of contemporary perceptions of disease and early death.


Terrence Holt (Presenter), University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill
Terrence Holt earned his MD from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he completed residency training in internal medicine and geriatrics. He also holds the PhD, MA, and MFA degrees from Cornell University. Formerly an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, writer in residence at Swarthmore College, and resident fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he is now associate professor of Social Medicine and Professor Emeritus of Geriatric Medicine at UNC. This year he is the Senior Anniversary Fellow at the IASH in Edinburgh. He writes, in a variety of modes, about human mortality and the problem of embodiment.