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  • And Now, a Necessarily Pathetic Response:A Response to Susan Schweik
  • Catherine Prendergast (bio)

I have the pleasant task of responding to an article I admire immensely, one that models the irrepressible curiosity that is at the heart of all fine scholarship. When Susan Schweik jumps on a plane to go not to London, not to Paris, but to Port Jervis, a city signaled as unexceptional by the very text propelling her there, she takes us on something of an ethnographic excursion to show us how literature is historicized in everyday life. We now know what Port Jervis, or Anytown, considers worthy of note and preservation: not the site of a lynching, but the life of an already valorized author.

This moment is salient in her article, because the question of what is worthy of preservation is at the heart of Stephen Crane's The Monster (1899). Why should Henry Johnson's life be preserved? Would it not have been better to let him die as the hero who had tried to rescue a white boy from the flames than to allow him to live as a faceless and seemingly mute monster? These questions, raised in the novella itself, are paralleled in its critical reception: As Schweik demonstrates, in the critical economy to date a story about a lynching is worthy of note, but one about face cancer, we can let die. To arrive at an analysis that considers the disabled and racialized body at once, Schweik deftly mobilizes disparate texts: the testimony on Levi Hume, the ugly laws of New York, the dime novel. She gives us revisionist literary history in the making, and then she revises it to suggest there are some questions we should not let die, especially because they are considered too ugly.

I am going to suggest that the ugliest question Schweik's investigation usefully addresses is the one it claims not to, the [End Page 238] question of why disability studies settled into departments of literature: "That academic disability studies in the US has emerged with particular intensity, institutionally, within departments of literature is itself a matter for inquiry within the domain of American literary history, but that won't be my topic here." Disability studies has emerged in departments of literature with intensity, but not comprehensiveness. I doubt that I'm alone in having been asked directly why literary departments should concern themselves with disability. I suspect this question must be asked often, because analyses of literary texts from a disability studies perspective seem always a little defensive, and, even at this late date, generally addressed to the uninitiated. I also suspect that the people who ask this ugly question of why a literature department should consider disability are not entirely ignorant of basic tenets of disability studies: They do recognize disability as social and political rather than merely medical, but they presume that for this very reason, disability studies rightly belongs in departments of sociology and political science.

My usual reply to the ugly question, then, involves some variant of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's observation that the reason other previously only social and political categories became literary had everything to do with disability:

As feminist, race, and sexuality studies sought to unmoor their identities from debilitating physical and cognitive associations, they inevitably positioned disability as the "real" limitation from which they must escape. . . . Formerly denigrated identities are "rescued" by understanding gendered, racial, and sexual differences as textually produced, distancing them from the "real" of physical or cognitive aberrancy projected onto their figures.


Mitchell and Snyder are not in the business of guilt-mongering. They are not saying that because those other otherings are accepted in literary study, so, too, should disability, since it "enabled" their entrée. Disability studies, as they are well aware, owes much to the civil rights and women's rights movements. What I allow myself to draw from their comments is that the displacement of need, fear, and other emotions through seemingly incidental narrative structures (including disability) is what literary study should reveal.1

Schweik shows us such displacements when she demonstrates that the politics of the lynching are "effaced" in the seemingly nonpolitical...


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pp. 238-244
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