Medical aesthetics of the early American novel

Date of Completion

January 2008


American Studies|History, United States|Literature, American




This dissertation explores medical topics in three novels of the Federalist era in America. It opens with a discussion of eighteenth-century attitudes about health, illness, and disease that became logical and integral components of the early American novel. A healthy individual was most likely a good citizen; conversely, a sickly person was often profligate, indigent, criminal, or lacking the intellectual strength to maintain physical composure. A healthy society consisted of virtuous citizens who played by the accepted rules of decorum. An examination of Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794) illustrates the way an outsider—an unwed pregnant immigrant from Britain—does not merit the healing ministrations of the community where she is abandoned by her lover. Charlotte Temple dies in neglect because the traditional female healing network does not consider her one of its own. The practice of medicine from the perspective of the physician is considered in a discussion of Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive; or, the Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill (1797). In this novel, an early American physician uses his position of authority to detach himself from his patients, to advance himself socially, and to condone or excuse the practice of slavery. Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799-1800) suggests that epidemic disease exposes the limited benevolence of an American society that is becoming deeply entrenched in a cash economy, and is beginning to shun the more personal human entanglements typical of traditional societies. ^ Social detachment was part of a Federalist philosophy that privileged an elite class of leaders over an ignorant and easily led populace. Because medicine is always inherently social, fictional representations of medical matters in these early American novels convey the values of a society that heals only those who fit neatly into the ideological apparatus of Federalism. Health and healing serve as markers of legitimacy in this early American republic. ^