Death Rights

Romantic Suicide, Race, and the Bounds of Liberalism

By Deanna P. Koretsky

Subjects: Literary Criticism, Romanticism, Nineteenth-century Studies, Black Studies, African American Studies
Series: SUNY Press Open Access
Paperback : 9781438482880, 214 pages, July 2021
Hardcover : 9781438482897, 214 pages, March 2021

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Table of contents



1. Liberty and Death

2. Chained to Life and Misery

3. Writ in Water

4. In Sympathy

5. Marvelous Boys


Analyzes how literary representations of suicide have reinforced antiblackness in the modern world.


Death Rights presents an antiracist critique of British romanticism by deconstructing one of its organizing tropes—the suicidal creative "genius." Putting texts by Olaudah Equiano, Mary Shelley, John Keats, and others into critical conversation with African American literature, black studies, and feminist theory, Deanna P. Koretsky argues that romanticism is part and parcel of the legal and philosophical discourses underwriting liberal modernity's antiblack foundations. Read in this context, the trope of romantic suicide serves a distinct political function, indexing the limits of liberal subjectivity and (re)inscribing the rights and freedoms promised by liberalism as the exclusive province of white men.

The first book-length study of suicide in British romanticism, Death Rights also points to the enduring legacy of romantic ideals in the academy and contemporary culture more broadly. Koretsky challenges scholars working in historically Eurocentric fields to rethink their identification with epistemes rooted in antiblackness. And, through discussions of recent cultural touchstones such as Kurt Cobain's resurgence in hip-hop and Victor LaValle's comic book sequel to Frankenstein, Koretsky provides all readers with a trenchant analysis of how eighteenth-century ideas about suicide continue to routinize antiblackness in the modern world.

This book is freely available in an open access edition thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships Open Book Program—a limited competition designed to make outstanding humanities books available to a wide audience. Learn more at the Fellowships Open Book Program website at:, and access the book online at the SUNY Open Access Repository at

Deanna P. Koretsky is Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College.


"Deanna P. Koretsky's Death Rights is this year's one notable study encountering Romanticism as the archive of the Middle Passage and British racialism." — Studies in English Literature

"…Koretsky's objection to the racially exclusionary myth of Romantic suicide is novel and compelling, an argument to be necessarily reckoned with by current and future scholars working on the literary and cultural history of suicide in the long eighteenth century. When framed in this way, it promises to be an indispensable contribution to the field. Moreover, the book is another important reminder of the racially coded myths scholars inherit and still employ in the broader fields of Romanticism and British literary history." — Journal of British Studies

"[Koretsky engages] with not only canonical romantic texts but also those that have resisted (or been resisted by) canonization. She gives weight to both Wollstonecraft and Mattie Jackson, reads Frankenstein against Destroyer, places Chatterton next to Cobain next to 'Clout Cobain.' In doing so, she shows the way that these texts have been misread, under-read, or read along deliberate and occlusive lines, and, through her own analysis, demonstrates ways of reading that are rich, resistant, and offer new considerations of romantic constructions and their legacies. Death Rights is an engaging and essential contribution to not only nineteenth-century studies as a whole, but also studies of whiteness, slavery and abolition, and suicide." — Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies

"…Death Rights is daring, original, and a valuable contribution to a scholarly conversation on race and rights that is a long time coming." — European Romantic Review

"This timely and sensitively written book raises pertinent questions about the possibilities and limits of the liberal imaginary that obliterates difference and the exclusionary politics of who is considered worthy of personhood, agency, citizenship, humanity, and inclusion. More importantly, the book does this at a time when, as per the report published in 2019 by the US Congressional Black Caucus, suicide is the second leading cause of death among African American teenagers. The Black Lives Matter movement makes the book even more relevant for scholars interested in the Romantic age, intersectional identities, and the philosophy and politics of liberal modernity." — H-Net Reviews (H-Death)