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Yellow Fever Years

An Epidemiology of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture


Ingrid Gessner

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.

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5 Race and Racial Relations in Yellow Fever Writing


5.1 Theorizing Yellow Fever and Race

Three facts in particular point to the importance of looking at race and racial relations with regard to yellow fever. First, many of the most popular novels in the nineteenth-century United States focus on the consequences of racial oppression and on religion (Samuels, Reading the Novel 19). Adding to this, Samuel Otter ascertains that “[f]ever and race are yoked across nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction” (Otter 31–32), from Arthur Mervyn (1799/1800), and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), to John Edgar Wideman’s “Fever” (1989) and The Cattle Killing (1996). The enduring association may have to do with the resonant events of 1793 and also with the figurative links between fever, color, and exposure (Otter 31–32). Secondly, after 1820 yellow fever was largely a Southern disease, and the American South was defined by its race relations. Thirdly, the contagionist school of the origin of the disease argued early on that yellow fever did not originate in America but was imported by ships, people and cargo arriving from the West Indies. Many abolitionists, while not necessarily following the particular theory of a West Indies or African origin, believed that the practice of slavery and the slave trade resulted in divine punishment in the form of yellow fever (see also Bell 18). While neither school of thought was entirely correct (none of them suspected the mosquito to be the pivotal figure in the process), the particular explanations became part of the...

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