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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 837-844

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Contagion and Culture:
A View from Victorian Studies

Mary Burgan

During the cholera epidemic in London in the early 1850s, a nonconformist preacher in the city observed that there were "three great social agencies" working for reform: "The London City Mission; the novels of Mr. Dickens; the cholera" (qtd. in Young 55). Dickens's grasp of the power of the representation of contagion has continued to be a presiding model in Victorian studies for thinking about the intersection of narrative, medicine, and effective social reform. Bleak House (1852-53) best embodies the power of Dickens's model; it invokes the miasmal, interpenetrating mud and fog of London from its very first paragraphs. And thereafter, the carriage of smallpox from Jo, the crossing sweeper at the heart of London's slum, to Esther Summerson, the saintly maiden in the heart of the country, becomes the narrative vehicle for a panoramic diagnosis of relationships between city and country, adults and children, the rich and the poor, and reform and charity in an industrial society that has metastasized beyond the control of its inhabitants.

In the literary representation of illness, Dickens is unique in providing the kind of symptomatic detail that was critically important in the nineteenth century's nosological project of describing and classifying illness. The tendency of obese individuals to drop into sleep unexpectedly has been named the "Pickwickian Syndrome" after Dickens's description of the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers (1836-37). And one medical historian has observed that if she had a little more information, she could actually diagnose the area of brain damage that makes Phil Squod, a minor character in Bleak House, veer and stumble as he moves about. 1

There is nothing like Bleak House in nineteenth-century American literature, and that fact may well mark some of the differences between ways that Americanists and Victorianists approach the representations of contagion in texts—medical, social, or literary. Accordingly, since my charge in this essay is to compare the way Victorianists look at representations of the spread of disease with the way Americanists have done in this collection, I [End Page 837] venture to use Bleak House as a guide. Among the main concerns in the studies of medical practice in this collection is the oppression of cruelly imposed systems on subject, colonized populations. Another is the professionalization of doctors as scientists who assume in their work the accreditation of scientific research and the authority of a mystified expertise. Combining these concerns is the overarching question of social as well as physical cure in the diagnosis of disease. The essays ask whether written intervention itself can become a form of unwitting contagion, carrying race or gender prejudice; whether the fascination with bodily wounds can become a celebration of affliction; and whether the rhetorical gestures of narrative can valorize a selective normativity in matters of health.

It is always dangerous to invoke the standard dichotomy that has placed nineteenth-century American romance against Victorian realism, but in the realm of the interdisciplinary study of literature and medicine, such cultural generalizations may be at least tested. Is the Victorianist approach more "clinical" than the Americanist—concentrating on social history rather than national myth? Does the pastoral-village setting of much nineteenth-century American literature, so intent upon defining the American Adam as a new creation, marginalize the urban reform issues that confronted the industrial cities of Europe—at least until the beginning of the last century? Did the American emphasis upon the democratic, pioneering spirit of its explorers and founders give rise to myths of the heroic physician and the visionary Utopian—myths that lend themselves to broad interpretation rather than the unraveling of complex institutions of politics and hierarchy that is required in Victorian studies? And finally, has America's preoccupation with the black-white, North-South divide inflected its current cultural criticism with a special awareness of national oppositions that play out along the lines of identity politics—race and gender—rather than the lines of class that preoccupy...


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