Skip to main content
Harvard University Press - home
The Oracle and the Curse

The Oracle and the Curse

A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War

Caleb Smith

ISBN 9780674073081

Publication date: 04/30/2013

Request exam copy

Condemned to hang after his raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown prophesied that the crimes of a slave-holding land would be purged away only with blood. A study of omens, maledictions, and inspired invocations, The Oracle and the Curse examines how utterances such as Brown’s shaped American literature between the Revolution and the Civil War.

In nineteenth-century criminal trials, judges played the role of law’s living oracles, but offenders were also given an opportunity to address the public. When the accused began to turn the tables on their judges, they did so not through rational arguments but by calling down a divine retribution. Widely circulated in newspapers and pamphlets, these curses appeared to channel an otherworldly power, condemning an unjust legal system and summoning readers to the side of righteousness.

Exploring the modes of address that communicated the authority of law and the dictates of conscience in antebellum America’s court of public opinion, Caleb Smith offers a new poetics of justice which assesses the nonrational influence that these printed confessions, trial reports, and martyr narratives exerted on their first audiences. Smith shows how writers portrayed struggles for justice as clashes between human law and higher authority, giving voice to a moral protest that transformed American literature.


  • In The Oracle and the Curse, Smith traces the remarkable changes in literary and judicial discourses that addressed (or conjured) a variety of public spheres and forms of authority during the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. As the secularization of law took hold, judges spoke as oracles of a transcendent rationality and social order, thus commanding obedience. In court testimonies, pamphlets, poems, and novels, however, voices of resistance responded with justifications derived from higher laws. Figures such as John Brown cursed the tribunals of the state and its oracles. Reformers who saw the danger in their fanaticism and tried to regulate such speech, however, did not always welcome their enthusiasm. Meanwhile, a doctrine of separate public versus private spheres led women writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe to enunciate an alternative discourse of intimate influence whose purported limitation to the private sphere was a mask enabling very public acts of social and political critique. Smith shows how much is at stake in these controversies. He does so through fascinating and wide-ranging examples drawn from legal cases and popular literature, crafting a thoroughly researched, persuasive study that is original and important.

    —G. Jay, Choice


  • Caleb Smith is Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 1-1/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press