Buried Lives
Incarcerated in Early America

Edited by Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell

Uncovering neglected stories in the long struggle between autonomy and authority


"Buried Lives is an antidote to the Rothman/Foucault/Ignatieff trilogy that emphasizes prisons as engines of the state. Intersecting several historical fields, the collection draws from studies on slavery and abolition, reform, poverty and the working class, personal narratives, and print culture. The variety of sources and methodologies employed underlines the book's potency as a revisionist project. The essays make good use of overlooked or not-so-obvious sources to tease out experiences, incidents, attitudes, and expressions of those incarcerated as well as their keepers."
—Susan Branson, author of Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic

"A challenging and thought-provoking collection. Prison history tends to focus on the founding elite and to assume that their initial visions were in fact carried out in practice. These lively studies uncover the quotidian realities of guards, clergy and inmates to counter these assumptions and challenge some dominant theories of the meaning of incarceration. The scholarship is first-rate, based on original archival research into previously obscure sources. Combined they have produced a fresh look at the roots of modern penal practices and at the resistance offered by those in these institutions."
—Susan E. Klepp, Professor of History, Temple University

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Buried Lives offers the first critical examination of the experience of imprisonment in early America. These interdisciplinary essays investigate several carceral institutions to show how confinement shaped identity, politics, and the social imaginary both in the colonies and in the new nation. The historians and literary scholars included in this volume offer a complement and corrective to conventional understandings of incarceration that privilege the intentions of those in power over the experiences of prisoners.

Considering such varied settings as jails, penitentiaries, almshouses, workhouses, floating prison ships, and plantations, the contributors reconstruct the struggles of people imprisoned in locations from Antigua to Boston. The essays draw upon a rich array of archival sources from the seventeenth century to the eve of the Civil War, including warden logs, petitions, execution sermons, physicians' clinical notes, private letters, newspaper articles, runaway slave advertisements, and legal documents. Through the voices, bodies, and texts of the incarcerated, Buried Lives reveals the largely ignored experiences of inmates who contested their subjection to regimes of power.

Page count: 320 pp.
19 b&w photos, 4 tables
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Michele Lise Tarter is an associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey. She is coeditor of A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America. Richard Bell is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States.