- Sammy Tubbs and Dr. Hubbs: Anatomical Dissection, Minstrelsy, and the Technology of Self-Making in Postbellum America
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The nineteenth century, proverbially the era of the “self-made man,” can more accurately be characterized as the era of the man-made self. Over the course of the “age of improvement,” programmatic making of self became a constitutive element of personhood in America, touching in some fashion nearly every segment of the population. Beginning in the 1830s, and gathering force in the postbellum era, discourses and technologies of subject formation proliferated, most visibly in a movement of “physiologists”—lecturers, teachers, physicians, and writers—who argued that a “true and rational course of human conduct, in all respects” required “a universal diffusion of a knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.” 1 While physiologists differed considerably as to what constituted a “true and rational course of human conduct,” all agreed that the dispersion of natural knowledge about the body was the necessary foundation for social, political, cultural, and moral reform. 2 This article is about a postbellum physiologist, Dr. Edward Bliss Foote, and his now-obscure but [End Page 131] extraordinary “novelty in literature,” Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and “Sponsie,” the Troublesome Monkey (Fig. 1). 3
In recent decades historians have described and analyzed nineteenth-century popular medical discourse as a response to social disorder and modernity, exploring its ideological content and demonstrating its importance in the development of the professions and feminism. 4 But in focusing on “health,” sexuality, and the medical management of “self,” this scholarship tends to skirt the conceptual core of physiological discourse: the anatomical body (perhaps because the anatomical body is our body and we privilege it as transparently “natural”). 5 In this essay I want to foreground anatomy as a [End Page 132] historically specific idiom of social identity. Anatomy was, to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, a “technology of the self”: a set of practices [End Page 133] through which a distinctively bourgeois personhood and agency could be defined, acquired, and “operated”; a collection of discursive categories, relations, and possibilities that constituted and articulated the self. 6
The Sammy Tubbs series, designed to help juvenile readers acquire an anatomical conception of self, exemplifies the exuberant and sometimes transgressive cultural politics that developed out of the anatomico-physiological project, and the difficulties and limitations of that politics. Within physiology, as in other discursive arenas, the boundaries and content of the bourgeois self were sharply contested. The anatomical body, seemingly “scientific” and outside the domain of social contention, was from its inception rife with contradictions and available for appropriation by a variety of contending forces. As a result, the cultural politics that attempted to draw its logic and legitimacy from physiological discourse was problematic—in some ways socially subversive, even emancipatory, but in other ways ratifying and enforcing the regnant social hierarchy and moral economy of capital, and in still other ways producing and enlarging new domains of professional and state social power.
The stakes were high. The acquisition and performance of bourgeois social identity was a pressing problem for many nineteenth-century Americans. People urgently demanded materials that might help them—and especially their children—to become “cultivated,” “respectable,” “civilized,” “intelligent,” “human(e).” One’s “civilization” or “intelligence” could be signified outwardly through the conversational and literary use of anatomical and physiological terminology and explanatory schemes, attendance at physiological lectures, and the purchase and reading of anatomico-physiological texts—but also, more importantly, through an “inner,” ideological performance. Anatomy and physiology provided the terminology, linkages, and figurations out of which a narrative of social and physical identity could be constructed and represented to one’s self as well as to others, the substance of an internal dialogue. 7 The acquisition of bourgeois identity, then, was not epiphenomenal, not just a putting on of anatomical clothes. Individuals experienced the anatomical body—as taught in schools, public lectures, and popular scientific books...