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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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6 Conclusion


I agree with Shirley Samuels who notes that “[t]o study the fiction of the nineteenth-century United States remains a practice full of discoveries” (Reading the Novel 151). The project of working with nineteenth-century fiction in the United States is open-ended. My wide and inclusive definition of yellow fever texts has pointed me to many previously critically disregarded texts, yet more texts in yet-to-be-digitized (and thus made more readily discoverable and searchable) magazines and newspapers will most certainly continue to appear. For these—yet to be recovered—texts Yellow Fever Years provides a matrix of how they may be grouped, analyzed and read together with other examples. My analysis of yellow fever texts under the lens of nation, gender, and race allowed for new assessments of epidemic threats and their fictional representations and new ways to read familiar novels as well as newly (re)discovered ones. Indeed, scrutinizing nineteenth-century fiction through the socio-political and biomedical lens of yellow fever discourse has enabled me to look at many of the canonized texts from a different angle and to make new discoveries. Fictional, non-fictional, and visual representations of yellow fever experiences and epidemic events are influential in the construction of medical and cultural knowledges of these phenomena. The metaphorical choices describing yellow fever epidemics in the texts additionally reveal anxieties of a more profound kind, such as social and political uncertainties, states of (perceived) crisis, and uncontrollable threats to the body politic. Between the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic in 1793...

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