Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Jeffory A. Clymer


Using recent criticism on speculation and disability in addition to archival materials, “A Public Duty: Medicine and Commerce in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture” demonstrates that reform-minded nineteenth-century authors drew upon the representational power of public health to express excitement and anxiety about the United States’ emerging economic and political prominence. Breaking with a critical tradition holding that the professionalization of medicine and authorship served primarily to support and define an ascending middle class, I argue that the authors such as Robert Montgomery Bird, Fanny Fern, George Washington Cable, and Pauline Hopkins fuse the rhetoric of economic policy and public health to advocate that the era’s disenfranchised “ill” (classified as such due to demographic factors or disability/disease) be recognized as worthy citizens capable of enhancing the economic and cultural wealth of the nation.

While many nineteenth-century authors drew upon the ability for sickness and death to unify disparate peoples, such instances often tend toward sentimentalism, imparting the message of inclusion by invoking readers’ sympathy. The authors included in my project, however, do not fit this mode. Instead, they used their works to insinuate that looking after the health and welfare of one’s fellow humans was simply good economics. In featuring issues of public health rather than private disability, depicting illness realistically in accordance with medical treatises and beliefs of the period, and showing the widespread consequences of disease these writers rely on their readers’ desire for economic prosperity, rather than affect, as a catalyst for social solidarity in a capitalist society. As such, my project causes us to rethink how the ascent of the novel not only helped define, but also challenged and critiqued, the identity-politics of an emerging middle class. By showing the authors studied in “A Public Duty” used literature’s pedagogical potential to argue the “sick” literally and figuratively had worth, I demonstrates these writers’ works help create and support a reconceptualization of the political body suiting a country poised to assume global prominence and urged their readers to see the variety of people living in the United States as a source of national innovation and strength.