The first work to combine literary criticism with other forms of death penalty–abolitionist writing, Demands of the Dead demonstrates the active importance of literature and literary criticism to the struggle for greater justice in the United States. Gathering personal essays, scholarly articles, and creative writings on the death penalty in American culture, this striking collection brings human voices and literary perspectives to a subject that is often overburdened by statistics and angry polemics. Contributors include death-row prisoners, playwrights, poets, activists, and literary scholars.

Highlighting collaborations between writers inside and outside prison, all within the context of the history of state killing laws and foundational concepts that perpetuate a culture of violent death, Demands of the Dead opens with a pamphlet dictated by Willie Francis, a teenager who survived a first execution attempt in Louisiana’s electric chair before he was subsequently killed by the state in 1947.

Writers are a conspicuous part of U.S. death-penalty history, composing a vibrant literary record of resistance to state killing. This multigenre collection both recalls and contributes to this tradition through discussions of such writers as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Gertrude Atherton, Ernest Gaines, Sonia Sanchez, Kia Corthron, and Sherman Alexie. A major contribution to literary studies and American prison studies, Demands of the Dead asserts the relevance of storytelling to ethical questions and matters of public policy. 

“Violence requires redeeming narratives. Demands of the Dead cuts through to the truth: the death penalty demeans and diminishes us. You will hear from prisoners, activists, scholars, playwrights, and poets. And you will want to do something.”—Sister Helen Prejean 
“Katy Ryan pulls off a rare feat with Demands of the Dead, producing a book that is both intensely scholarly and deeply personal. It feels at once like a fiery speech from the pulpit and a well-reasoned argument against capital punishment. A book of both historical and literary weight.”—Robert K. Elder, author, Last Words of the Executed
“Katy Ryan’s Demands of the Dead is fascinating and important, intelligent, and full of urgency and moral righteousness. I was completely taken by the testimonies of those on death row. This book should be read by as many people as possible.”—Nick Flynn, author, The Ticking Is the Bomb

Sherman Alexie

John Cyril Barton

Steve Champion

Kia Corthron

Thomas Dutoit

Willie Francis

H. Bruce Franklin

Tom Kerr

David Kieran

Jennifer Leigh Lieberman

Jill McDonough

Anthony Ross

Elizabeth Ann Stein

Rick Stetter

Matthew Stratton

Jason Stupp

Delbert L. Tibbs

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330 pages, 4 photos