by Joan Burbick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. x + 355. $59.95.
More than thirty books are published each year which consider conceptualizations of the human body. Many of these publications focus on bodily representations as articulated synchronically in languages of related disciplines. Burbick's study precisely fits this recent and burgeoning intellectual activity. Her main thesis centers on how the discourse of medical, legal, political, and literary writings reveals cultural assumptions and anxieties as inscribed in the common flesh of the body in nineteenth-century America, especially as interpreted by its middle-class spokespersons and authorities.
In fact, the rivalry among newly developing authorities is one of this book's most interesting points. As Benjamin Rush's epoch of bloodletting and cold-water cures (not to mention his suggested treatment for necrophobia: temporary burial in a coffin) was passing away, struggles for control of the body's health raged fiercely, ranging from the phrenologists and mesmerists to the newly established American Medical Association (1847). Faced with the collapse of local communities as bases of knowledge and advice, many writers were suspicious of rising professionalism. Samuel Thomson's Narrative of the Life and Medical Discoveries (which saw thirteen editions after its first printing in 1822) complained that the vacuum of traditional authority had created a gullible public ripe for the plucking by predatory physicians.
Equally intriguing is how some reformers, while opposing the hegemony of doctors, became as dictatorial as Hawthorne's Puritans. For Sylvester Graham, to cite one example, physiology took on the status of sacred law "which cannot be violated with impunity," he said, adding that no one can "move nor breathe nor exercise volition without obeying or violating penal laws." Mary Grove Nichols, a Graham sympathizer, wrote lectures, a novel, textbook chapters, and reminiscences which argued for the authority of science, rationality, and law predicated upon experts who would certify whether such authority was being properly received.
In contrast reformers like John C. Gunn (who wrote the most popular medical care book in mid-nineteenth century America), Lydia Maria Child, and Harriot Hunt promoted a democratic relationship between subject and ruler. Gunn and Child converted garden herbs and kitchen contents into domestic "tools" to be used in medical treatments and instruments. Hunt believed patients were capable of (and required to) "speak their disease." In a symbiotic relationship, Hunt's patient and physician would develop a community of sympathy wherein "the little word WE" would help to effect recovery. First and foremost, the patient must learn "to utter yourself in confidence and trust" after searching for a language which enables such utterance. One can easily see how this medical opinion relates to literary and historical matters including Dimmesdale's need to confess to his community, Gilman's nervous monologue in "The Yellow Wallpaper," and William Seward's wife who, by acceding to her doctor's authority, allowed herself to be bled to death.
These are some of the main issues in Healing the Republic's first section whose purpose is to clarify general issues. Among other issues in this section is the insistence that the body signified the nation. As Burbick puts it: "In the language of health, if the individual could sustain well-being, sense disease, reflect, read, listen to good advice, and act properly, then a free society could be upheld and, when necessary, healed." In doing so, it was necessary to dissect and to disjoint various bodily parts. As Burbick explains: "In order to construct social order and maintain hegemony, a topology of the body emerged during this period that privileged particular parts of the body. The brain, heart, nervous system, and eye became keys to health and natural symbols that empowered particular groups to create systems of discipline, self-control, and understanding for the individual. Each body part resonated with a social philosophy and promoted forms of authority necessary for a healthy nation."
Section Two of Burbick's book attends to the values encoded in each of these four body parts. The first and last chapters--the managing brain and the technological eye--are the strongest parts of the entire book, and some readers will be familiar with the former since a version of it was previously printed in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies. In this Section, Burbick asserts that Ahab conformed to a medical superintendent's warning that the imbalance of the brain and the excessive ambition of "exceptional men" resulted in social disorder, and Moby-Dick's definition of monomania echoed the definition found in the Penny Cyclopaedia popular in Melville's day. The unstable grammar and punctuation of Diskinson's verse was a "nervous" language which challenged cerebral knowledge. The stomach, nervous or otherwise, was often claimed as a "natural symbol" of the warring elements in cultural distress. The eye was assisted by numerous inventions--the zootrope, the phenakistiscope, the thaumatrope, the magic lantern, the daguerreotype--which transformed ordinary phenomena into the spectacular and which, by dissociating scene from its viewer, promised objective truth. Of particular interest is Burbick's account of the use of slides in mental asylums to relieve boredom, to control patients' conduct, and to provide "evidence" to inmates of an independent, exterior world outside their own subjectivity and delusion.
Anecdotal information is, in fact, this book's most attractive feature. Indeed, the information in the lengthy footnotes is often as useful, relevant, and as interesting as the material in the text. Some readers might find the least attractive feature to be the book's frequent but wispy allusions to current theorists like Geertz, Bakhtin, Gramsci, and Foucault; since these allusions are seldom developed, they distract from the anecdotal review. Still other readers may have problems with Burbick's consideration of the nineteenth century in its entirety since the century is marked by vast literary and cultural shifts and developments. The status of physician changed drastically from the founding of the AMA in 1847 to 1905 when the medical profession had gained all but complete mastery over the field, and literary emphases on Romanticism's possibilities yielded to the Naturalist's obsession with law and restriction.
One final characteristic of this book is its tendency to raise fascinating questions which are summarily disposed of, leaving it to readers to construct more complete and complex responses. For example, Burbick mentions in passing that slaves were considered to have bodies different from Anglo-American bodies, and one would like to have fuller discussion of this fascinating idea, including whether conceptions of slave bodies changed when they gained freedom or if gender were a factor. Since Burbick performs excellent and thorough analysis of middle-class white women's role in "Healing the Republic," one wishes her to match that achievement in the book's other parts. This desire is felt most frequently whenever sex or economics are involved; fine ideas surface which all too quickly sink out of sight. One wishes those ideas were either placed off the main path in footnotes or developed. That is, one wishes the book were either longer or shorter than its 350 pages.
Still, Burbick proffers a wealth of material interlaced smoothly across many textual disciplines. Perhaps her best contribution, aside from the anecdotal, is her faithful attention to the anxieties and tensions recorded in the discourse on health in nineteenth-century America. One of the skillful passages wherein Burbick articulates this tension reads: ". . . the autonomous, universal body did not unify the nation, but gave its citizens a grid upon which they wrote their fears about the republic. The brain, heart, nervous system, and eye as sites of the body created a rhetoric of health that struggled to establish order while revealing fundamental value conflicts. Body sites valorized particular forms of labor, created hierarchies of race, class, and gender, and offered solutions dependent upon kinship, conversion, proper moral sensibility, and even genetic make-up." To a considerable degree, Burbick fulfills this ambitious thesis.
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