Yellow Fever Years

An Epidemiology of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture

by Ingrid Gessner (Author)
©2016 Postdoctoral Thesis 282 Pages


Exploring the nexus of American Studies and the Medical Humanities, this book examines the interdisciplinary interfaces between disease and American cultures and literatures. It traces the appropriation of yellow fever to legitimize the young nation and its embeddedness in discourses of race and gender from the late 18th until the end of the 19th century. Previously untapped textual and visual archives provide a heterogeneous base of canonical as well as previously disregarded works that are analyzed for yellow fever’s metaphorical and actual potential of risk and crisis. As a literary history of yellow fever epidemics, it firmly establishes the ideological, socio-political, visual, and cultural processing of the disease, which figures as invasive, inexplicable Other.
Yellow Fever Years has received the Peter Lang Nachwuchspreis 2015.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • 1 Representing Yellow Fever: Contagion, Crisis, and Control
  • 1.1 Approaches to Reading Yellow Fever Texts
  • 1.2 Yellow Fever Fiction as Symbolic Action
  • 1.3 Conceptualizing Yellow Fever Representations: Nation, Gender, and Race
  • 1.4 Etiology and History of Yellow Fever
  • 1.5 Making Yellow Fever American: Medical Discourses and Atlantic Conversations
  • 1.6 Perspectivizing Yellow Fever Historiography and Literature
  • 2 Yellow Fever in 1793—A Case in Point: Resolving Crises and Building the Nation
  • 2.1 Introducing Yellow Fever in 1793
  • 2.2 Infecting the Nation: Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799/1800)
  • 2.3 Political Dimensions: Matthew Carey’s Short Account (1793) and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen’s Narrative (1794)
  • 2.4 Looking Back to 1793: The Philadelphia Epidemic in/and Cultural Memory
  • 2.5 Yellow Fever and the Nation
  • 3 Displaying Disease: Yellow Fever Visualized
  • 3.1 Picturing Yellow Fever
  • 3.2 Establishing an Etiology and Iconography of Pictured Disease
  • 3.3 Yellow Fever under the Touristic or Distant Gaze: An Aesthetics of the Destructive Sublime
  • 3.4 Capturing Yellow Fever on Camera
  • 3.5 Visual Functionalizations of Yellow Fever
  • 4 Gendered Accounts of Yellow Fever
  • 4.1 Women, Writing, and Yellow Fever
  • 4.2 Between Nostalgia and Women’s Rights: Mary Faith Floyd’s The Nereid (1871)
  • 4.3 Yellow Fever and the Nursing Experience: Wesley Bradshaw’s Angel Agnes (1873) and Mattie Stephenson (1873)
  • 4.4 “Volunteers to the fever district”: Reversing Gender Roles in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s “Zerviah Hope” (1880)
  • 4.5 “The fever creeping into her veins”: Yellow Fever as Liminal Experience in Mollie E. M. Davis’s The Queen’s Garden (1900)
  • 4.6 The Transformative Potential of Yellow Fever Narratives
  • 5 Race and Racial Relations in Yellow Fever Writing
  • 5.1 Theorizing Yellow Fever and Race
  • 5.2 Yellow Fever at Sea
  • 5.3 New Orleans: Race Capital, Disease Capital
  • 5.4 Yellow Fever and the African American Experience
  • 6 Conclusion
  • 7 Bibliography
  • 7.1 Yellow Fever Fiction, Poetry, and Drama 1793–1916
  • 7.2 Yellow Fever Fiction of the Late Twentieth and Twenty-First Century
  • 8 Works Cited
  • 9 Index

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The beginning of my first academic probings into the combination of matters medical, historical, and literary can be dated to the fall of 2005. However, my ideas, it seems, had to be stimulated, like a dormant virus if you will. My play with metaphors ends here since the ‘virus’ which had been planted was positively stimulating and not at all destructive. My general interest and original questions were further influenced by the works on literature, medicine, and biomedical discourses by Carmen Birkle in Marburg and Rüdiger Kunow in Potsdam.1 Their work has been instrumental in the development of my project. It is an honor that both of them have seen the project evolve over the years and have continuously offered their generous advice.

I am greatly indebted to Udo Hebel, whose continuous support and belief in this project, paired with generous professional and knowledgeable advice, made this book possible. I am also most grateful to Volker Depkat and Christoph Meinel for serving as mentors and for expertly supervising the Habilitation process. I thank Volker Depkat for his pertinent and continuous questioning of the arguments I presented at various research colloquia. Christoph Meinel saw this study emerge from a very early stage, and I thank him for his thoughtful questions and comments. The project has received substantial financial support from the State Government of Bavaria in the form of a Habilitation scholarship, which allowed me to advance the project in the year 2011–2012.

This book would not have come into being but for the wise guidance and inspiration of my teachers at the University of Mainz, Winfried Herget and Alfred Hornung. I have significantly profited from, as well as enjoyed fruitful discussions and conversations about, literature, visual and memory culture, medical history, and American Studies with Erika Doss, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Karsten Fitz, Gesa Mackenthun, Miles Orvell, Gregory Tomso, and Werner Sollors. Marc Priewe’s comments have greatly helped in advancing my thinking in terms of health and illness. Conversations with scholars also working in the fields of literature, culture, and medicine were invaluable in terms of exchanging ideas and sources as well as providing encouragement: I wish to thank Antje Dallmann, Marcel Hartwig, and Andrea Zittlau. Some arguments presented in this book ← 11 | 12 → have been tested at conferences and invited lectures. On these occasions, and when preparing presentations for publication as articles in collections of essays, I have received instrumental feedback from Heike Paul, Christopher J. Lukasik, and again, Rüdiger Kunow and Carmen Birkle. I wish to thank the anonymous readers of Peter Lang Press for their reading of my manuscript and for nominating it for the Young Scholars Award 2015. It is through them that the book came ‘home’ to Regensburg and appears in the Regensburg Studies in British and American Languages and Cultures series, generously edited by Udo Hebel, Edgar W. Schneider, and Anne-Julia Zwierlein.

In between revising manuscripts, teaching, and speaking at many stimulating conferences, I have attended the most important ‘firsts’ in anyone’s life, notably the first day of school of our daughter Ida and of our son Jonah, as well as Ida’s First Holy Communion. Writing a book on yellow fever discourses and raising kids at the same time has been both a challenging experience and one full of joy and happiness. I studied the biomedical threat and presence of yellow fever in the nineteenth century while nursing ailing backs, and fighting real bouts of scarlet fever in the twenty-first. In this sense, while nursing a book to life, I also self-schooled myself as a nurse. However, most of the time, no one is sick and you just live in the moment, which is something you re-learn by having kids, and you simply enjoy what is happening in front of your eyes.

I want to thank those that helped and steadfastly accompanied me in academic and non-academic ways on parental, medical, and academic paths. My current and former colleagues in American Studies at Regensburg offered critical feedback when I presented several parts of my book to them as it was taking shape. I would like to thank Susanne Leikam and Nassim Balestrini for their helpful suggestions and their friendship. I thank Katharina Fackler for sharing my academic curiosity in regard to a forgotten author, Mary Faith Floyd, as well as for her continuous friendship and support. I am indebted to the questions and succinct comments of Birgit Bauridl, Katharina Boehm, Anna Farkas, Alexandra Herzog, Klara-Stephanie Szlezák, Claudia Trotzke, Florian Weinzierl, and Doris Wess. I also thank my students over the years who shared my various academic interests and whose questions helped me to clarify many of my arguments.

A book like this is not possible without the help and guidance of knowledgeable librarians. With this work I am greatly indebted to the incredible and ever so kind Christopher Dagleish at Regensburg’s university library. He taught me to tap into resources I had only dreamt existed: There are no words to describe what you made possible. And a book like this would also not be possible without the incredible friends I am blessed to have. For their kindness, inspiration and ← 12 | 13 → unrelenting support I thank Birgit Däwes, Veronika Hofstätter, Juliane Schwarz-Bierschenk, and Amy Gebauer.

I thank my incredibly calm and knowledgeable father-in-law, Dr. med. Klaus Gloede, with whom I not only discussed such medical problems as the (im)possibility of in utero yellow fever infection, but who also took a keen interest in my pursuing a university career. I also thank my belligerent and uncompromising, but equally sensitive mother-in-law, Christiane Gloede, who taught me to believe in and fight for what is important (to me). My brother Ansgar and his wife Susann Park-Gessner always offered support at very critical times. I thank the strong women in my family, my aunt and godmother Elisabeth Gerster and my grandmother Meta Gerster. Many thanks go to my kind and thoughtful father, Ingwald Gessner, with whom I share a love for writing, and who supported me in all the ways parents do, by not asking questions when there were none to be answered and by asking questions and encouraging me when I needed support. I am also thinking of my mother, Ursula Gessner, who always knew I would do this—although she did not live to see it. I thank you all. My husband Markus Gloede not only discussed many of the novels with me, read my drafts, and made thought-to-be lost documents magically re-appear on my computer screen, he also gave me strength during the most trying times. Without him this book would not have been written. The most important acknowledgement thus goes to those with whom I share every single precious day in life, in sickness and in health: Ida, Jonah and Markus, this book is dedicated to you.

1 In October 2005 I heard Professor Kunow’s talk “In Sickness and in Health” at Mita Banerjee’s conference entitled Virtually American? Carmen Birkle presented at the EAAS biennial conference in Oslo in May 2008.

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As a child I received vaccinations against a wealth of diseases that have threatened mankind for most of its history. I am one of the last of my larger generation to bear the smallpox-immunization marks on my upper left arm. My slightly younger brother was already spared the procedure as smallpox was certified as eradicated by 1980.

However, my teenage years were not free of disease threats and affected by the discovery of and growing concern with HIV/AIDS. The disease was covered prominently in the media and has inspired federal educational campaigns until this day. In its Safe Sex campaigns of the 1980s, the German Ministry of Health flooded schools with flyers and educational material, and it pioneered the demonstration of correct condom use in the classrooms. I remember the first time the disease hit (close to) home, when our next-door neighbor, “who had gotten it in San Francisco” (the word went), died of HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s. And I remember the day when a friend who was late for school that day broke the silence of our algebra classroom on the morning of November 25, 1991 to announce: “Freddy Mercury is dead.” In the 1990s, with outbreak suppressant medication available, Western societies in particular seemingly learned to live with the disease and have accepted it as a negligible risk of modern life. This is the biggest problem related to HIV/AIDS today: it is no longer perceived as an immediate threat. Other diseases took over its prominent place in the 1990s.

While HIV/AIDS was the disease of the 1980s, ‘Mad Cow’ or Creutzfeld-Jakob disease took over in the late 1990s. The threat of the disease seems to have lingered from the late 1990s until the 2000s. The 2000s were marked by a perceived flow of epidemic diseases beginning with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which nearly became a pandemic with initial infections in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in November 2002, and an outbreak in Hong Kong only four months later which spread worldwide in early 2003. Within weeks, global air-travel brought SARS to 29 countries across five continents and infected over 8,000 people, of whom 774 died (“WHO: Summary of Probable SARS Cases”). In late May 2003, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, decided to move the Women’s World Cup tournament (September 23 to October 11, 2003) from China to the United States because of SARS.

The panic surrounding avian influenza, ‘bird flu’ or H5N1, which had been spreading throughout Asia since 2003 and reached Europe and the Middle East with the first cases in 2005, is a particularly interesting case. H5N1 literally ← 15 | 16 → prospered in the shadow of SARS and is an example of the incongruence between perceived threat and actual infections (320 by 2007), while bird flu’s case fatality rate of over 60 percent is admittedly high (WHO Sept. 10, 2007; http://www.wikibirdflu.org/). The litany of health threats continues with the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic and the 2011 epidemic of the Hemolytic-uremic Syndrome (HUS) caused by a strain of E. coli bacteria EHEC, a foodborne illness.

In 2010, a special surveillance was established for several mosquito-transmitted diseases, such as the West Nile virus (WNV), dengue virus (DENV), and the chikungunya virus (CHIKV), in the Veneto Region of northeastern Italy. These arthropod-borne viral diseases have spread in the Western Hemisphere, with dengue in the 1990s, West Nile virus since the 2000s and the chikungunya virus more recently (2010s).

Between March 2014 and early 2016 the Ebola epidemic in the West African states of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone killed more than 11,300 people. The fear of Ebola—fueled by the extensive media coverage—spread faster than the actual virus. The United States immediately reacted with measures of biocontainment, screening and surveillance. Immigration officers began questioning airplane passengers and screened them for fever at U.S. airports, while specialized biocontainment units were set up to isolate patients. One year later, in May 2015, the first Zika virus infections were confirmed in Brazil. This illness, which—like yellow and dengue fever—is transmitted by the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Many times those infected do not even realize that they are carriers of the virus, which has been related to the Guillain-Barré syndrome and to pregnant women giving birth to babies with birth defects and to poor pregnancy outcomes. Like yellow fever in the United States until the early twentieth century, the Zika virus poses a risk that is seemingly indeterminable in its spread over time. As a disease that is not gender-neutral because it affects men and women differently and could potentially be transmitted sexually, it represents a socio-cultural time-bomb.

Oftentimes, a seemingly incongruous assessment of a health risk and media-induced panics over certain diseases generate and feed into a “culture of fear”—to use Barry Glassner’s term. In the 2000s the escalation from limited outbreaks to global media attention and panics seems to have happened in ever shorter periods of time. For example, cholera received major press attention in October 2010 due to an outbreak on Haiti. Some media sources connected the epidemic to Nepali peacekeepers that had been stationed there on an UN mandate. The presumption led to riots as Haitians believed the UN to have lied about the true origin of the outbreak (a UN resolution on November 12, 2010 had denied the ← 16 | 17 → Nepali contingents’ responsibility for the outbreak). This news item, apart from exemplifying the spiral of anxiety, panic, and public mistrust in the face of a national health crisis, reminds us of the crucial role that Haiti plays metaphorically (with respect to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic and Charles Brockden Brown’s fictionalization of it in his gothic novel Arthur Mervyn) yet also politically to this day in race and disease relations of the U.S. and the Caribbean.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (October)
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 282 pp., 21 b/w ill., 9 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Ingrid Gessner (Author)

Ingrid Gessner is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg. Her interdisciplinary research includes projects of visual culture and literary studies, gender studies, war and peace studies, the medical and digital humanities, and issues of cultural memory and transnationalism.


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