Book review: Melancholy Accidents

With guns on the public mind, now might be a good time to read Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, an anthology of newspaper accounts of accidental shootings, mostly fatal, compiled by Peter Manseau. Spanning 1739 to 1916, they're brief, only a half-page on average, but their old-fashioned diction, formal as a wing collar, and the ironic distance between their deadpan recitation of the facts and the mayhem they recount gives them a prosaic poetry. They uncover the matter-of-fact madness of what Manseau calls "a nation that fancies itself created and sustained by guns, yet remains resigned to being culled by them with unnerving frequency."

Some of the book's entries have a Fortean absurdity that splits the difference between tragic and comic, like the February 13, 1739 item from The New England Weekly Journal about some men trying out a new firearm on the broad side of a barn. As fate would have it, "one of the Bullets struck upon some piece of Iron and split it (the Bullet) in two, one piece of which flew to a considerable Distance from the Barn." A Doctor Rice was traveling along the road; it cut him down. The other half came to rest near a cluster of people but "did no Hurt." One of them, the Reverend Mr. Sterns, "sent the piece to the Men who were firing, with a desire that they would take more Care for the future."

Other reports are contenders for the Darwin Award, testimonials to the stupidity of the species. The July 26, 1759 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette reports the story of a man who grabbed his gun by the muzzle to shake a recalcitrant cartridge into place. Right on cue, "it went off, and mangled and tore away [a] great Part of his Belly, so that his Entrails fell out." Some of the stories have a distinctly gothic undertone, like the account of a deer hunter named Sherron shot dead by a deer-hunting neighbor who mistook him for quarry. "It is remarkable," the reporter notes, with sinister suggestiveness, "that this said Sherron was shot at by the same Person twice before and badly wounded, but through Mercy escaped with his Life."

Manseau is the religion curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, so it's no surprise that he reads these tales of "melancholy accidents," as they were called, as parables for a nation that has grown up with a bible in one hand and a firearm in the other. To Americans, "the gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate," writes the cultural historian Garry Wills. "It is an object of reverence. … Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned."

Manseau quotes these lines to underscore our veneration of the gun as a tribal totem and our embrace of the Second Amendment as holy writ, brought down from Mount Sinai by Charlton Heston. Then he complicates that relationship by noting that, paradoxically, injuries and fatalities like the ones anthologized in Melancholy Accidents have "presented to a largely religious nation blasphemous evidence of divine indifference."

American history has at least two possible futures. Shamed by the moral courage of the teenaged survivors of the Parkland shooting, we can snap out of our three hundred years' trance and stop making sacrifices to the God of the Gun (38,658 of them in 2016 alone, according to the CDC ). Or we can double down on the American death cult, take it seriously as the religion it is. Build megachurches, black as gunmetal, with spires modeled on rifle cartridges. Ordain a clergy to officiate over masses where the cross has been replaced by the crosshairs and the communion chalice brims with real blood. The priest's benediction will be a malediction, beginning, as Manseau's book does, with a line from the Russian journalist Svetlana Aleksievich: "People shoot, but it's God who delivers the bullet."

Melancholy Accidents [Amazon]

— Mark Dery is a cultural critic and the author of several books, most recently the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams . His biography of Edward Gorey, Born to Be Posthumous (November 2018; Little, Brown), is available for pre-order now.