- Democracy’s Nervous Reflexes
This brilliant study by Justine Murison offers highly original analyses of a wide range of medical and literary texts, pulling them into a rich portrait of nineteenth-century nervous physiology. It is also a first-rate contribution to Poe scholarship, one that reveals a keen understanding of Poe’s fascination with the configurations and consequences of mental energy. Murison’s chapter on Poe pairs his satirical tales with Marshall Hall’s experiments on amphibious spinal chords in order to propose, in an entirely fresh and convincing way, that Poe viewed slavery as a system shot through with the kind of nervous reflexes exposed in vivisected animals.
Focusing primarily on the antebellum years, Murison works with a concept of embodied anxiety—of nerves alive to and entangled with expressions of political sympathy and satire, public sentiment, and democratic engagement. She brings medical theories about the pathways of nerves across the ostensible mind-body divide into connection with important developments in, for instance, mesmerism, telegraphy, and abolitionism. Her aim is clear: to show “how nervousness came to structure cultural expectations, historical narratives, and political rhetoric in unexpected ways” . But it is also complex, engaging nervousness as the subject of complicated, contradictory positions held by different writers and thinkers and not as a stable frame through which to interpret their work.
For Murison, the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the mystery of nerves produced narratives of a self alive to political and cultural forces, including what transformations of political identity were possible, predictable, and uncontrollable. It was the still-inexplicable nature of the nervous system throughout the century, with its seemingly invisible functions, that permitted an extensive lexicon for what Murison calls the “open body” or embodied mind. This lexicon, in turn, furnished writers with ways of interpreting politics and social hierarchy in light of experiences and concepts ranging from hypochondria and dyspepsia to clairvoyance, enthusiasm, and the reflex arc. Murison’s research is formidable and her style at once lively and convincing. In particular, she breathes new life into the concept of sympathy that arises in so [End Page 111] many antebellum documents, aligning it with debates about mesmerism and the complexity of the nervous body: its spiritual, electrical currents; its sensual expressions.
Her first chapter centers on Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee (1836), demonstrating that sympathetic physiology at once structures its politics of self and other and extends into Bird’s position on the rhetoric of abolitionists. Murison draws on a range of archives, from the medical history of hypochondria and racial identity to the postal campaigns of the American Anti-Slavery Society, moving seamlessly in and out of them as she builds her case about the representation of the slave revolt (as sentimental contagion) in the novel. It is astonishing how many balls she can keep in the air, even as she sustains a compelling close reading of Bird’s satirical twists and turns.
Her chapter on Poe follows, and the transition is particularly dexterous, pivoting on Poe’s appearance in chapter 1 as Bird’s reviewer. “One can easily imagine,” Murison remarks in a captivating way, “that Edgar Allan Poe experienced a jolt of recognition as he sat down to read Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee; Written by Himself, . . . a novel of metempsychosis in which Lee’s spirit inhabits and reanimates a succession of corpses” . For Murison, Poe’s disapproval of Bird’s representation of slavery illuminates Poe’s engagement with the subject from a different medical angle. She contends, moreover, that the antebellum focus shifted from bodily sympathies—Bird’s focus—to the physiology of the reflex arc, and that Poe was conversant with these developments. She tracks his reading through his reviews of medical and scientific publications and through his collaborative work in natural history. “Poe did his homework,” as she clearly shows .
This homework included theories of mind that developed from Galvani’s observations of galvanized frogs and from Marshall Hall’s findings. Murison carefully delineates Hall’s work...