The Pathology of Fear: Disease and American Dis-ease at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
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Fear is a productive power through which morality, law, and the state are founded and maintained. Focusing on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon American men‟s pathological fear of disease ranging from neurasthenia and hysteria to bubonic plague, this dissertation suggests that turn-of-the-century medical discourse, manifesting the age‟s ideological evaluation of vice and virtue, was instrumental in shaping and sustaining the racial and sexual order of American society. The pseudo-scientific discourse of imagined immunities or vulnerabilities to these diseases, conceived as the bodily evidence of racial and sexual difference, entailed imagined communities and hierarchies among the different races and sexes. Reading Edward Bellamy‟s Looking Backward 2000-1887, Gertrude Stein‟s “Melanctha: Each One As She May,” and Sinclair Lewis‟s Arrowsmith as medical records, this study identifies the heightened nativist, racist, misogynist, and imperialist impulses of turn-of-the-century America channeled through the knowledge of psychopathology, neurology, bacteriology, and immunology. The symptoms and treatments of neurasthenia, hysteria, and bubonic plague portrayed in these fictions ventriloquize the American dis-eases over overcivilized effeminacy and racial and national decadence, originating as a response to the threats posed by immigrants, women‟s advancement, and the closure of the frontier. A clinical diagnosis of the sleepless hero in Looking Backward as a neurasthenic, the epitome of the bodily weakness and racial superiority of the Anglo-Saxon American, addresses the collaboration between contemporary racial ideas and medical and hygienic theories which served to shape the design of Bellamy‟s ethnocentric utopia. This dissertation then argues that Melanctha Herbert in her namesake short story was modeled on the representative characteristics of a hysterical woman through which Anglo-Saxon American men reconfirmed their privileged position in society. Focusing on the bubonic plague that represented an alien threat to the American body and body politic in the 1900s, I, in the following chapter, read Arrowsmith as the narrative of an American imperialist doctor whose quest for immunity laid the foundation of the empire and its biopolitical sovereignty. Not only did these diseases work as a metaphor for American fears of heterogeneity, but they also functioned as a regenerative device that rendered white American ideals and values more dynamic and resilient.
Jung, Yeonsik (2013). The Pathology of Fear: Disease and American Dis-ease at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from