Now I’m going to talk about it at length. And when I say at length, I mean at length. Feel free to ignore me. My day will be made if you just follow those lovely links above and read the story for yourself. My commentary is entirely optional.
From the moment the title is read, it’s possible to determine that this is a unique essay when compared to ‘traditional’ nonfiction pieces featuring research. Combine the title with the first sentence and we see what I think is the most interesting part of this piece: it’s in second person.
Maynard’s use of second person leaves the ‘you’ of the story in very abstract terms. Even when describing the general demographic of those sentenced to death, he uses language that remains ambiguous, saying “You are probably a man,” and “There’s a strong chance you’re black.” Because these identifiers are not concretely assigned, it’s easy for the reader to place themselves as the person being addressed in this letter. By using this technique, Maynard forces the reader to consider how it would feel to be facing death in the way a death row criminal would, going over ways the execution could be carried out and the things that happen leading up to the set time of death. This second person use really made me consider what our judicial system allows. Where before my opinions on capital punishment existed in the background of my mind, I was now forced to fully confront them in a way I hadn’t before, examining them in close quarters where before the concept and any opinions I had on the subject existed in the abstract.
In the one non-fiction class I have taken during my undergraduate career, my professor always asked us to find the ‘truth’ of the essay we were reading, always pushing towards some big grand conclusion. Applying that type of analysis to this essay can be a bit tricky. For one thing, it’s based on the entirely fictional premise of ‘Executioners’ writing a letter to an inmate. There is no narrative to the piece. Maynard’s essay is more of a telling of the history of execution in America, explaining the ways in which it’s been done, some of the killed’s last words, and the types of of people that are sentenced to death. They are all true accounts, but they are wrapped in a fictional package, forcing the reader to expand both their idea of what a creating nonfiction piece can be and their idea of what telling a true story is. Because of the way the essay is presented, the point of it can be a little difficult to find. While the callous, overly self-important tone can be used to pint towards a reading that plants the author fully against capital punishment, I feel that it’s impossible to make any conclusion about the author’s position until the final paragraph reached.
Maynard concludes this essay by saying that we, the executioners, are different than the executed because the process of killing in an execution is more humane than the process of killing in a murder. He writes that the minority of Americans who feel capital punishment is wrong create uncertainty. He finishes the piece with the certainty of death of the inmate, and the final sentiment, “. . .we did not do this. You did.” Though throughout the entirety of the essay ‘you’ refers to the inmate, when I first read this, I felt that in this last moment the ‘you’ was no longer the person about to die. It felt like the ‘you’ was being directed at me, the reader. It felt like an accusation, which while couched in the idea of justified capital punishment, made me wonder at my complacency in allowing this arranged death to happen. This las paragraph brings me to the conclusion that the author is, in fact, against capital punishment, and that the ‘goal’ of this essay is to force the reader to evaluate their own position on this issue.
I read this essay as part of a nonfiction course at my university, and it was the only piece I loved (aside from David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” because, really, who doesn’t love that?). Prior to this piece, I had no idea such interesting uses of nonfiction existed. A second-person letter? It never occurred to me that something like that could be ‘nonfiction.’ So maybe my love for this piece is biased by the fact that it changed my whole view of nonfiction. Or maybe it really is as good as I think it is.
Why don’t you let me know what you think in the comments? 🙂