- The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability eds. by Clare Barker and Stuart Murray
The Cambridge Companion to Disability and Literature, edited by Clare Barker and Stuart Murray, offers a much-needed introduction to the thriving field of literary disability studies, which emerged as an academic discipline in the late 1990s following its origins in the social sciences. Each of the volume's carefully crafted essays will appeal to a broad audience, benefiting both undergraduate students and advanced literary scholars looking for a comprehensive primer to disability studies and, more specifically, representations of disability in literature.
In their introduction to the Companion, Clare Barker and Stuart Murray suggest that the problem with disability is not that it is absent from literature but "that it is frequently not seen" (2). They continue, "That this is the case is.…less to do with the texts themselves than the reading practices that have been brought to them. Precisely because disability appears to signal the possibility of so many connections to other topics, it can easily be lost or subsumed in what are presumed to be more 'important' (and nearly always nondisabled) questions" (2). Literary scholars are trained to understand disability as symbolic; "actual disabilities seem clearly less important than the function they serve to underscore," whether it be sentiment, abjection, villainy, or heroism. Each of the Companion's essays models how to read for disability as what Ellen Samuels calls "actual realities" and considers how representations of the lived, material experience of impairment challenge conventional literary forms and their accompanying modes of analysis (qtd. in Companion 10).
The Companion is divided into two parts. The book's first half features eight essays, which track a historical genealogy of disability representations, moving chronologically from medieval to contemporary literature. Edward Wheatly suggests that medieval writing illustrates what he calls the "religious model of disability" whereby impairment is a result of "divine punishment for sinful behavior" and cure was understood as religious rather than medical (18, 19). Alison Hobgood and David Wood turn to early modern humoral theory to show how an anonymous Renaissance play, Looke about You, casts emotional deviance as a productive and even desirable aesthetic. Like Hobgood and Wood, Essaka Joshua suggests that "deformity" in the eighteenth century was, as in Frances Burney's Camilla (1796), an affirmative, aesthetic category that predates "disability" (47). Despite the rise of medicalization in the nineteenth century, Martha Stoddard Holmes argues that stereotypical representations of "afflicted" and "defective" characters like Charles Dickens's tragic Tiny Tim are ripe [End Page 299] for understanding disability as a social category because they are positioned in relation to kinship and labor. Michael Davidson asserts that modernist literature predominantly "feature[s] disease or disability as a figure for social upheavals and cultural malaise" to buffer ideals of "the statistically normal body" (74, 85). While we might assume that contemporary literature offers more nuanced representations of disability, Stuart Murray posits that post-1945 novels waffle between problematic depictions of impairment as sentimental and melodramatic, and subversions of these stereotypical representations in narratives like Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003). In her essay on postcolonial fiction, Barker discusses how representations of "affliction" and their association with muteness are "direct consequences of colonization," and, although they rely on metaphor, she suggests that they also trouble "widely accepted ideas about the body, health, ability, and healing" (105, 111).
The second section of the Companion considers disability studies' critical methodological investments and their overlap with intersecting minority fields of study. Alison Kafer and Eunjung Kim's essay on disability and intersectionality turns to Audre Lorde's work in the 1980s to advocate for neither the inclusion nor the replacement of "disability" among a range of other identities but for consideration of intersecting "systems and structures of oppression" (129). Looking specifically at the overlap between crip and queer identities, Robert McRuer examines a range of literary, visual, and cultural...