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  • Killing Them Softly: Childbed Fever and the Novel
  • Jane F. Thrailkill*

Any nineteenth-century woman who suffered from a virulent case of childbed fever died a terrible death. Although there were many things to dread in childbirth during that time—a prolapsed uterus, a vaginal tear, or a forceps-maimed infant, among others—nothing was as unpredictable or as lethal as puerperal fever.1 As professor of obstetrics Charles Meigs wrote in 1854:

Sometimes the pain, which is, at the onset of puerperal fever, felt in the [abdomen], is too intense to be borne by any human patience; and no exhortation or recommendation can prevent the woman from crying aloud, or even screaming in her agony. I have seen patients, who not only appeared to suffer intolerable pain, but in whose minds that pain appeared to excite the most unspeakable terror.2

There is, as this description shows, nothing “soft” about death from childbed fever. Why, then, does my title link “killing them softly” with the novel?

This coupling appears especially incongruous given the recent turn to ethical criticism, in which certain forms of narrative are conceived to be restorative because of their reliance on the particular and the concrete.3 The emergence of the novel has long been connected to individualism;4 however, as the methods of the physical and social sciences, of legal theory, and of philosophy have become the object of literary critical censure, the novel’s individualism has taken on not only historical but also ethical significance. According to critics of nineteenth-century literature and culture such as Mary Poovey, Martha Nussbaum, and Wai Chi Dimock, the increasing scientific and [End Page 679] philosophical commitment to abstraction and normativity produces an “epistemological violence” that deadens and dehumanizes; by contrast, according to these critics, the novel’s densely layered details vivify, while its complex web of motives elicits compassion.5

If, as Poovey argues of statistics, “the individual human being . . . is obliterated by the numerical average or aggregate that replaces him,” the novel’s particularizing language provides, in Dimock’s words, a “supplement and a corrective” to the “descriptive thinness and experiential harshness” of those abstractions that are “palpably impoverishing of the world.”6 Nussbaum sums up this position in her book Poetic Justice:

[T]he novel shows . . . the economic mind is blind: blind to the qualitative richness of the perceptible world; to the separateness of its people; to their inner depths, their hopes and loves and fears; blind to what it is like to live a human life and to try to endow it with a human meaning. Blind, above all, to the fact that human life is something mysterious and extremely complicated, something that demands to be approached with faculties of mind and resources of language that are suited to the expression of that complexity.7

In these accounts, aggregating representations do not simply overlook differences; they actually eradicate them and in doing so harm individual persons. If the “thinness” of abstractions is damaging and the novel’s “thickness” is sustaining, the task of the literary critic becomes importantly therapeutic—ameliorating the noxious effects of the former by an infusion of the latter. There is, as Elaine Scarry has observed, an oddly interventionist slant to this sort of critical undertaking, “as though the persons and events contemporaneous with the literary text are themselves alive and subject to alteration—capable . . . of being healed, or hurt, or educated.”8

These contemporary accounts of narrative as a humanizing and healing force bear directly on my examination of a moment in the history of the American novel when Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., working as both a physician and a novelist, explicitly inquired into the relationship between medical science and the novel. By examining Holmes, I wish to consider the consequences, both logical and historical, of the literary-critical position that truly to know and to appreciate something or someone is to know that thing or person in its irreducible (or in the critics’ words, “incommensurable”) particularity.9 For Holmes, [End Page 680] the commitment to the novel as a solution to the abstractions of science is deeply problematic, for his great contribution to medicine was his pioneering use of...

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2117
Print ISSN
0002-9831
Pages
pp. 679-707
Launched on MUSE
1999-12-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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