Cholera's Clock: Race, Illness, and Time in the Nineteenth-Century American Literary Imagination

Reilly, Bridget, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Brickhouse, Anna, English, University of Virginia

This dissertation recovers an American literary history of cholera, exploring how the nineteenth-century epidemics impacted cultural constructions of race, illness, and time. Cholera more so than many diseases calls attention to questions of time. It struck bodies fast and drained them quickly. A young woman seemingly healthy at breakfast could have stomach cramps by noon. By four, completely dehydrated from an unstoppable cycle of diarrhea, her muscles could spasm and her skin wrinkle and darken. At eight she could be dead. Medical texts and news articles often depicted the disease as an agent of aging as well as an Orientalized plague called “Asiatic cholera” come to invade the West’s self-proclaimed modernity. Yet the “time of cholera” was not totally defined in oppressive terms. Literary formulations of cholera offer a particularly rich site of negotiation among competing ideas of time and, in turn, philosophical, legal, and scientific definitions of the human. The literature of cholera reveals the extent to which the disease disrupted fantasies of national and individual progress. Yet at the same time, racialized representations of the disease often re-imposed linear arrangements of time on bodies and geographies, separating the primordial from the modern, and the supposedly gross materiality of the body from the lofty intellect and spirit.

A literary history of cholera necessarily exceeds national boundaries. The texts I study trace transmission from the auction blocks of New Orleans to the free streets of Kingston. They shuttle between Wall Street’s trading floors and Liverpool’s cotton warehouses, and they contemplate the temporal continuities of the Ganges, the Hudson, and the Mississippi. This cholera canon expands the scope of prior cultural studies of the disease, which have centered on European cities and Victorian literature. Following the lead of Michel Foucault, these studies have charted how the illness contributed to the cultivation of health by liberal governments. However, a different cholera narrative emerges when we consider how settler colonialism and enslavement have always been predicated on the death and destruction of certain lives. In the texts I attend to, “King Cholera,” a popular nickname of the disease, reenacts the sovereign right to kill rather than affirming the state’s responsibility to manage and maintain life. Placing the health humanities in conversation with recent studies of biopower in early America, my project illuminates: the intertwined temporal underpinnings of race and illness, the organizations and thefts of time on the plantation and in the nineteenth-century hospital, and the impact of epidemic on how bodies were defined, timed, and organized in the nineteenth-century US and beyond.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Cholera, American Literature
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