- Disability Politics and American Literary History:Some Suggestions
For a long time now, critics have marked the presence of disabled figures in US literature, but only recently, and still sporadically, has disability been granted a politics in American literary history. In the last decade, disability studies scholarship has helped us understand "disability" as a category saturated with social meaning, embedded in specific historical contexts, and subject to contestation. American Literary History has played a part in this, with the publication, for instance, of two landmark pieces, Lennard Davis's review essay "Crips Strike Back" in 1999 and Tobin Siebers's "Disability in Theory" in 2001, and also of more recent work by Laura Tanner and Ben Reiss, among others.1 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. In this essay I will make a few suggestions about the politics of disability in American literary historiography. I take my invitation to move in the realm of suggestions from a review of Stephen Crane's The Monster (1899), published in the Academy shortly after Crane's death. I will argue that the review suggests a lead to a significant context that has been systematically obscured by late twentieth-century critics on Crane, who have focused on race at the expense of attending to disability dynamics in the novella. A reconsideration of disability politics in this buried historical trace sheds new light, in turn, on The Monster's ironic turn-of-the-century reworking of earlier Civil War literary plots in which race and disability are not separate but rather deeply associated and mutually reinforced. [End Page 217]
The Monster would be claimed by Ralph Ellison in 1945 as "one of the parents of the modern American novel" (65), along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), but the Academy reviewer in 1901 was more anxious about the novella's place in American literary genealogy—and in particular, about who might be the modern American novel's grandma:
It has been suggested that, in his volume of short stories entitled The Monster, the late Mr. Stephen Crane was less original than usual, that he was indebted to Uncle Tom's Cabin for the idea of the title story. These suggestions hardly carry conviction, and we are not surprised to learn, from Mrs. Crane, that the stories which are thus criticized are founded on her late husband's personal experiences.("Review" 1)
The Monster revolves around two intersecting plots that John Berryman summarized as "rescue-and-punishment" (192). A black man in a small New York town, Henry Johnson, rescues the son of a white doctor from a burning house, survives so badly burned that he now has "no face," and is subsequently terrorized by the horrified townspeople; the white doctor, in turn, saves Johnson's life, refuses to mercy kill or institutionalize him, and is subsequently ostracized by the townspeople. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) seems an odd, and at the same time overdetermined, source for this ironic, corrosive novella.2 Whatever it was that prompted the accusation, the problem of Stowe's suggestion is resolved here by appeal to Crane's experience. The Academy quotes Crane's wife Cora's defense: "Uncle Tom's Cabin did not suggest The Monster." What did suggest The Monster, the Academy reviewer went on to specify, was a "real man" ("Review" 1).
Cora Crane described his "reality" in these terms: "Henry Johnson was a real man—that is, he was burned horribly about the face; but he was a hero only in as he was a horror" ("Review" 1)—meaning in part, one supposes, that the real "Henry Johnson" never saved anybody from a burning building. Closer to home, in Crane's hometown of Port Jervis, New York (which Crane fictionalized as Whilomville), his niece Edna Crane Sidbury testified that the prototype for Henry Johnson was not burned at all but a survivor of facial cancer, a man named Levi Hume who hauled ashes in Port Jervis and whose appearance terrified Port...