This article was originally published in Violence in America: An Encyclopedia, ed. Ronald Gottesman (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons) 1999.
Representations of violence in nonfiction prose comprise a large category, and are a feature of American nonfiction literature from the period of colonization to the present. One may find such representations in genres ranging from memoir, personal narrative and biography, to writings within the fields of history, political science, sociology, psychology, and law. Accounts of violence are also contained in primary documents, including legal records (depositions, briefs, case studies, trial records), medical records, political papers, and military documents.
Nonfiction descriptions of violence may be divided into four sub-categories: 1) personal accounts produced either by victims or perpetrators of violence; 2) third-person accounts by witnesses or others interested in narrating the details of an act of violence; 3) theoretical or analytical literature written by scholars; 4) documents generated by officers of the state or other social institutions.
The first sub-category is one with which the average person is familiar. First person and testimonial literature is well-established within the American tradition, and representations of violence date back to the earliest days of settlement where they can be found in captivity narratives (describing the kidnapping of whites by American Indians) and in accounts of life in the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, where conflict with the native inhabitants was constant and often fierce.
The number of first-person narratives of violence increases throughout the Colonial period and Revolutionary period, encompassing narratives of witch trials, indentured servitude and slavery, political repression, and the earliest first-person accounts of crime victims. During the Antebellum period personal narratives were written by some slaves, and, as the Abolition movement grew in strength, slave-narratives were widely distributed, presenting us with images of violence that are still familiar—The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is required reading in many high school and college courses.
In the period of Westward expansion, first-person narratives of frontier violence became a staple of the new “dime novel” publishing industry, though quite a few of those allegedly “true stories” were fictionalized representations attributed to such Frontier heroes as Buffalo Bill Cody, Billy the Kid, and Calamity Jane. The Revolutionary War, the Indian wars, the Mexican War, the Civil War and other pre-19th Century American conflicts also produced their share of memoirs describing conflict and battle.
In the 20th Century first-person accounts of the Frontier were replaced by the “true crime” story in which the new era’s hero—the detective or police officer—described tracking and capturing violent criminals. The true-crime genre has its antithesis in the accounts of police and government repression penned by American political radicals of the 20th Century—including members of the American Communist and Socialist parties and labor organizers in the first half of the century, and writings by participants in the civil rights and labor movements, as well as identity movements (Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican independentistas, Sanctuary workers, etc.).
In the 1970s the first commercially published narratives by sexual abuse survivors appeared, and now there are sections devoted to the subject in most bookstores. Accounts by the perpetrators of crimes have also gained popularity, and one can find memoirs by violent criminals of various types, ranging from armed robbers to serial killers. In the late 1980s narratives written by African American and Hispanic “gang-members” started to appear on bookstore shelves, and they comprise a small but growing sub-genre. Today the most popular forms of first-person narratives of violence are true-crime and war narratives.
Third-person accounts mirror closely the patterns described above. The chief difference between the first and third-person accounts is the level of authority accorded an “objective” third-person narrator, who is, presumably, not as emotionally involved in the subject matter as the victim or perpetrator. These accounts include biographies, journalism, polemics, and “as-told-to” narratives. Claims to objectivity vary—some accounts are by intimates or family members with clear interests in the the story; others are by persons with distinct political agendas. Like first-person narratives, these accounts must be read in context, and each one must be understood to be the product of a particular set of political, economic, and social pressures.
Theoretical and analytical literature exceeds first-person narratives in both volume and scope, but it is so varied and diffuse as to be difficult to describe either quickly or neatly. It, too, deals with the subject areas discussed in the first section, though it is less concerned with describing particular incidents of violence than it is with providing a methodological framework for understanding violence. Social sciences literature on violence is extensive, particularly in psychology and sociology. Literature in the field of psychology tends to focus on the violent impulses of individuals, describing motivations and effects. Literature in sociology focuses on the social patterns and institutions in which violence takes place. Philosophical and theological writing on violence deals with the intersection between the individual and society. Descriptions of violence in historical literature tend to take the form of narrative, or a chain of cause and effect. In the past two decades a great deal of interdisciplinary work on violence has been generated, particularly in the areas of feminist theory and Cultural Studies. These recent works combine various traditional disciplinary perspectives to generate new insights on violence, representation, and society, and have resulted in a new understanding of previously misunderstood phenomena such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Stockholm Syndrome, and other responses to violence.
The fourth sub-category is comprised of those documents generated by officers of the state or other social institutions. The taking of confessions is a practice which predates the formation of the republic, and we have on record many thousands of confessions of convicted criminals, ranging from “witches” to murderers. Trial records also contain verbatim transcripts of the descriptions of violence told within the framework of the justice system, both military and civilian. Though usually protected by privacy law, there also exist hundreds of thousands of case histories compiled by psychotherapists and other mental health practicioners in the course of their duties, as well as reports by medical doctors documenting that their patients were the victims of violent assault.
The category of nonfiction prose representations of violence is wide, indeed, and this article is merely intended to provide you with a broad introduction to the subject.
- Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse, The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. New York: Routledge Kegan and Paul, 1989.
- Brass, Paul R., Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Violence. New Jersey: Princeton, University Press, 1997
- Tal, Kali, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.