Embodiment, Bodily, Body, Reading, Sympathy, Health, Disease, Touch, Archive, Cartesian, Corporal, Letter, Passion of the Mind, Medical
Bodies were intimately involved in the production, circulation, and reading of the materials that scholars of early America study. Early American bodies, however, have become largely removed from our readings of historical texts. Recovering the interconnection between ideas and bodies in those texts reveals that, despite the resilient Cartesian separation between mind and body in the modern era, early American writers and readers saw more fluidity between the components that constituted the body and the archive than we may acknowledge today. One leading eighteenth-century medical theorist, William Falconer, wrote, “The corporeal functions coincide herein with the mental”; the body and the mind were not always discrete features, but integrated parts of what he described as the “human system.”1 In Falconer’s system, the individual parts coordinate and communicate, affecting one another in ways that make the limits of each part hard to discern. Thoughts, feelings, senses, and their expression through the handling of pens and presses are bodily elements that manifest themselves in texts—making texts, to some degree, artifacts of the body. Their content represents embodied lives, and their forms bear the imprint of the bodies that shape them. In short, all texts have a bodily provenance.
In what follows, I draw on popular and medical ideas of embodiment in early America, such as Falconer’s “human system,” to call attention to the means and causes of the body’s significance in the material culture of that period. Such an investigation, I aver, inspires possibilities for re-embodied scholarly research. I will argue that it is essential to recognize that today’s scholars bring a contemporary sense of the body to the texts they study, specifically with respect to questions of access, ability and disability, legibility, and other physical aspects of research. The space of the archive might [End Page 607] also be considered an extension of the body, acting not only as a repository of embodied texts but also as an embodied site of reading, where one body touches another through material texts.
The body has long been a concern in scholarship. The book historian Robert Darnton has written that in early America, “no one challenged the notion that there was a physical element in reading.”2 More recent scholarship by Gillian Silverman, Karin Littau, and Garrett Stewart has begun to explore the interaction with written material as a form of physical interaction between bodies (though these works are not focused on an early American context). Stewart argues that the book is a “somatic surrogate,” and Silverman explores how “readers have a voluptuous relation to books” that she relates to intimate physical touch.3 As these scholars help us understand, readers, through their physical interaction with written material (reading, touching, holding, feeling the weight, and the like), experience an imagined physical contact with the author, characters, or other readers. At the same time, academic research offers an additional form of physicality of reading with what some scholars have described as the seduction of the archive. Arlette Farge, Carolyn Steedman, Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman, and Ann Vickery have discussed the lure of knowledge that triggers the researcher’s mind and body to dig deeper.4 The pursuit of knowledge makes the heart quicken, the face flush, the back straighten, and the eyes focus despite fatigue. Though many of us have experienced this, it has yet to be related to the early American corporeal connection to texts, which Falconer called the “human system,” where bodies and books bleed together. This essay seeks to draw connections between them.
In early America, books provided a lens through which people saw and understood their bodies. For example, texts such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece and William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine were hugely popular (though [End Page 608] Buchan’s would have had a place on a shelf, whereas Aristotle’s Masterpiece might have been hidden from view) and remained in print for over 150 years.5 Readers turned to these texts to learn about and make sense of their own and others’ sexual, medical, and normative bodies. The often mysterious...