Memento Mori: Attending to the Dead in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

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The chapters of this dissertation examine scenes of death and dissection in American novels in the context of scientific, economic, and political changes during the long nineteenth century. Drawing on historical accounts as well as current critical interventions, I explore how writers wrestle with how the increasingly biological understanding of human life began shaping the body politic. The dead body provides an organizing principle as I develop a critical methodology for reading death in the nineteenth century against the grain of sentimentality and racial terror. By paying attention to dead bodies in genres of literature that eschew sentimentalism and didacticism in favor of satire and rebellion, I argue that the dead body can bear witness to the violence of white supremacy and capitalism, whilst also protesting these forces in material and discursive ways. In the proto-science fiction/utopian novels of Robert Montgomery Bird's 1836 Sheppard Lee: Written By Himself, Sutton E. Griggs' 1899 Imperium in Imperio, and Pauline E. Hopkins' Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, serialized between 1902 and 1903, readers encounter scenes of the apparent death and dissection of Black and white protagonists. While Bird was a white physician and author writing in antebellum America, Griggs and Hopkins were Black authors writing post-Emancipation in the Jim Crow era. All three authors are united in observing how death's unruly presence resists the disciplinary technologies of biopolitics, racism, and sentimentality, and their weaponization against Black Americans. However, Griggs' and Hopkins' utilize fiction and science to reposition death not as inevitable but as a form of rebirth which enables utopian experiments in Black freedom, Black life, and Black futures.

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145 pages


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american literature; biopolitics; death; history of medicine; nineteenth century; race


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Samuels, Shirley

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Seth, Suman
Cohn, Elisha

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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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