Thesis ID: CBB068831065

Disability and Race in British Literature, 1580-1833 (2021)


Disability and Race in British Literature, 1580-1833, examines the ways Both Spanish and English peasants and lower classes were regarded as intrinsically different from the nobility in which concepts of disability and race are deployed as human disqualifications in literary, medical, natural historical, and travel texts written between 1580 and 1833, the year Britain abolished slavery in its colonies. This long chronological spread allows me to demonstrate how informal taxonomies are recruited by empire in the service of defining, differentiating, and hierarchizing human bodies in the production of a “civilized” British subject. Using disability studies and critical race theory, my project specifically looks at how medical and colonial discourses work together to construct concepts of disability and race in ways that are at some points mutually constitutive and at others mutually aligned, often through references to animality. In the periods and discourses that I examine, disabled and racialized people are aligned in consistent but unexpected ways to stabilize definitions of the human, reflecting how white able-bodied British writers wanted to see themselves in an era of nascent nation and empire building. Across this chronological spread, I focus on three distinct cases of dehumanization and pathologization as they entail issues of race and disability, particularly around bodily difference and language use and ability. In the second chapter, I examine the way in which discourses of race are figured through the language of disability by looking at texts by George Best, Robert Burton, and Ben Jonson before centering my discussion on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Covering the works of Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Bulwer, John Wallis, and John Wilkins, my third chapter demonstrates how discourses of disability and race were aligned in the construction of Enlightenment ideals of reason expressed through language. I examine the way in which “making signs” is deployed in deaf education manuals and travel literature as able to communicate reason. I consider the way in which race intersects with what Stephanie Kerschbaum refers to as the “presumed wholeness of a hearing identity” to analyze the writings of both deaf instruction manuals and the reception of the poetry of Francis Williams, a black Jamaican scholar who wrote poetry in Latin. In my fourth chapter, I demonstrate the deep continuities of thought between early modern scientific research and Romantic-era concerns surrounding health, disease, and blood. I argue that, in Frankenstein, Victor conceives of the creature in terms of pathology by examining the use of the slaughterhouse in the novel and the history of blood transfusion experiments. I use these histories to provide a matrix of meaning to understand how both health and disease are constructed through biocultural significations of blood. In the Coda, I do a comparative analysis of Caliban and Frankenstein’s Creature to consider the way in which eloquence intersects with the stigmatization surrounding disability.

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Authors & Contributors
Bailes, Melissa
Blanchard, Pascal
Bouk, Daniel B.
Burnham, John Chynoweth
Ciavolella, Massimo
Hogan, Andrew J.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Royal Historical Society. Transactions
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Gender and Society
Johns Hopkins University Press
Liverpool University Press
University of Arizona Press
Disabilities; disability; accessibility
Disability studies
Natural history
Barbauld, Anna Letitia
Francis of Assisi
Hollerith, Herman
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft
Smith, Charlotte
Time Periods
19th century
17th century
18th century
16th century
20th century
Early modern
United States
Great Britain

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