Year of Publication

2015

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Marion Rust

Abstract

This dissertation argues that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives about personal and collective experiences with disease train American readers to fear illness while warning them against the dangers of being afraid. Such narratives depict the way illness ravages the physical body, disrupts interpersonal relationships, and threatens to dismantle social or municipal organization. In other words, the story of sickness is a story of terror-inducing dis-order. I study disease with a lens informed by cultural and disability studies to show that what makes disease historically and culturally significant is its power—through the body—to dis-order relationships, society, and knowledge. Anxieties about this dis-order did not go dormant when an epidemic faded; they continued to circulate in writing, their vigor magnifying with each new outbreak.

Through extensive archival research into representations of disease in ephemera, popular publications, and medical writing, my dissertation proffers a new reading of canonical works depicting sickness. Literary works gothicize disease by dramatizing its possible effects that make life unrecognizable, thus feeding fears as they portray them. My analysis shows that works like John and Abigail Adams’s letters, Abigail Abbot Bailey’s memoir, editorials from Nathaniel Parker Willis, novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig are as invested in the fear of illness as disease narratives by Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe that are traditionally read as gothic. While scholars may recognize the significance of disease-induced fear in any of these individual texts, they treat each example as unique whereas I show literary authors contribute to a broader cultural anxiety spawned on the pages of popular media and spread through belles-lettres.

To emphasize the relationship between the circulation of information and the circulation of disease, each chapter focuses on one disease and the written or print form that participated in sharing and shaping opinions about the disease as a terrifying event: smallpox and letters, yellow fever and pamphlets, cholera and periodicals, and tuberculosis and sentimental novels.

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