In his foreword to The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability, Lennard J. Davis characterized its publication as a watershed for literary disability studies. The 2012 collection of essays was the first of its kind, examining a single text from a variety of disability studies perspectives. It was, Davis wrote, a "coming of age moment" for the field (ix). The same could be said of the first issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies in May 2007, or what I think was an especially pivotal development, the recent announcement of Literary Disability Studies, a Palgrave Macmillan book series that will be devoted to "the exploration of literature and literary topics from a disability studies perspective" (270a). Auspiciously, Literary Disability Studies is edited by David Bolt, Elizabeth J. Donaldson, and Julia Miele Rodas, the same trio that edited The Madwoman and the Blindman. The new series will be the first to publish scholarly work exclusively in the field with which it shares its name. As such, its announcement invites a reflection on how literary disability studies has reached its present form, and how it has gained mainstream acknowledgement as a crucial mode of textual analysis. Palgrave Macmillan's announcement also invites us to speculate about the future of the field—and especially how Literary Disability Studies will bring new voices into existing conversations and allow scholars to initiate new lines of inquiry into how "disability" shapes, and is shaped by, literary texts.
The Past and Present of Literary Disability Studies
At the close of her groundbreaking Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997), Rosemarie Garland-Thomson powerfully underscored the stakes of literary disability studies: "I suggest that representation informs the identity—and often the fate—of real people with extraordinary bodies" (15). In doing so she offered a compelling link between the politically charged disability studies of the 1980s and 1990s, [End Page 109] and a belief held by many in literary studies, that a poem, novel, or play does not merely reflect the culture of its production, but can influence the attitudes and lived realities of its readership. Extraordinary Bodies helped to shape the early course of literary disability studies, providing an example of the rich yield of a sustained examination of "how representation attaches meaning to bodies" (5). Like texts penned by other foundational disability scholars—among them David T. Mitchell, Sharon L. Snyder, and Lennard J. Davis—Extraordinary Bodies was largely a project of recuperation and reframing. Garland-Thomson called attention to the then-unacknowledged reliance of what she importantly termed "the normate" on "the disabled figure as the paradigm of what culture calls deviant" (6). Extraordinary Bodies also helped expose the extent to which (stereo)typical modes of representation can fail to align with the lived sociopolitical and embodied realities of disability. Like the field she helped to inaugurate, Garland-Thomson asked us as readers, teachers, scholars, and students not only to recognize the disability we encounter in texts, but to adopt a critical stance in relation to it.
Much like Extraordinary Bodies had a decade earlier, in 2007, Ato Quayson's Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation both reflected and helped to shape contemporaneous trends in literary disability studies. Quayson figured his project in a lineage largely defined by Garland-Thomson's scholarship, and especially her affectively charged concept of the normate and its uneasy, culturally inscribed relationship to disability. But in a number of respects, Quayson explicitly sought to stake out new territory, offering a direct complication of prior approaches to literary disability studies. Instead of emphasizing "the binary opposition of normal/abnormal," a preoccupation of earlier scholarly work, Quayson advocated the idea that literature represents and enacts "the dialectical interplay between unacknowledged social assumptions and the reminders of contingency as reflected in the body of the person with disability" (21). In a sense this amounts to viewing literary encounters as similar to the real-world, embodied encounters between the normate and disability that Garland-Thomson had articulated a decade earlier and that she continued to theorize in her brilliant 2009 Staring...