Accidental Gun Death as Literary Genre: Peter Manseau’s ‘Melancholy Accidents’

In Peter Manseau’s Melancholy Accidents, the author, who has won the National Jewish Book Award and writes regularly and admirably about religion, has uncovered perhaps the stablest and most thoroughgoing religious pastime among Americans: injuring and killing one another accidentally with firearms. Amid this discovery, too, he has uncovered a literary genre, called “The Melancholy Accident.” As it happens, the title of the book refers to a newspaper item that featured widely across states and territories from the mid-18th century to the early 20th. The sole purpose of these paeans to an American god (the gun!)? To notify the public of a recent, accidental death or injury by firearm, and to lament that death or injury. Here is an unfortunate example:

March 28, 1872

A tragedy most sad in its details took place in New York. William Trevert, a German citizen in comfortable circumstances, accidentally shot his wife with a pistol, killing her instantly. Trevert became a raving maniac when he saw what he had done.

Spirit of the Age, Woodstock, Vermont

“Taken together,” Manseau writes, these melancholy accidents “might be seen as a forgotten mode of American storytelling.” In the book, there are hundreds of similar or selfsame examples. Variation in the melancholy accident, as it happens, usually has to do with the nature of the accident: its circumstance, or who is injured or killed. Was it a child who killed another child, or was it a dog? Did one friend mistake another friend for game — a turkey or a squirrel — or were the shooters total strangers? Or was the deathly calamity an inadvertent gunpowder plot?

December 19, 1754

On Saturday last about two in the Afternoon, a Place call’d the Dust house, belonging to Mr. Norman’s Gun-Powder mill, blew up; and kill’d one Man, who was barrelling up the Gun-powder. ‘Tis reckoned there were about thirty Barrels of Powder in the Store-room, each Barrel containing about 100 lb. Weight. The building was blown into thousands of Pieces, and carried a great Way, the poor Man’s Body was torn into so many Parts there is no finding them, or half his Bones…

The Boston Weekly News-Letter, Boston, Massachusetts

Manseau notes the unfortunate similarity between these news items and the #GunFail meme that prevailed after the horrific murder of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. He also cites the melancholy accidents as an Americanized version of the Danse Macabre allegories that arose in plague-era Europe; both point to the universalizing, caste-slaying power of death. (“Death wields his dart, and strikes the blow, / Alike unfeeling for the high and low,” says an entry from 1790.) And he laments that gun accidents haven’t been used more to limit the availability of firearms. “Throughout US history,” he explains, “inadvertent injuries by firearms have vastly outnumbered either mass shootings or attempted assassinations.”

I read the collection hoping to find some through line, some evolutionary principle that guided the development of the melancholy accident over three centuries. Instead, the “plot” of the book showed me that not all tragedies return as farce, at least not in America, where tragedies simply recur as bullets; though I will admit that the accumulation of melancholy accidents, of children made dead, of wives made widows, did remind me of the run of misfortunes in Nathanael West’s A Cool Million. Only instead of Lemuel Pitkin, the protagonist is America, which I guess is the point.

And I began to wonder if our insane disposition toward the gun isn’t an “accident” of American history. If philosopher Paul Virilio is right, following Aristotle, that “the accident is what happens unexpectedly to the substance, the product or the recently invented technical object… the accident is thus the hidden face of technical progress,” maybe gun worship is the accident of American Empire. But Manseau had beat me to it: “Indeed, if we could somehow hashtag history, a narrative would emerge of a nation that fancies itself created and sustained by guns, yet remains resigned to being culled by them with unnerving frequency.” You can’t hashtag history, but you could send this horrid, necessary little book of hymns to the gun worshiper you’re sad to know.