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Reading Autopsy: The Medical Practice of Romantic Literature

Hegele, Arden Alexandra

Reading Autopsy: The Medical Practice of Romantic Literature examines the literature of British Romanticism and advances in medicine in the emergent disciplines of anatomy, psychiatry, pathology, and semiology. The project draws on works and artifacts that range from lyric poetry and the realist novel to postmortem reports, physicians’ manuscript notes, and Bedlam case histories, to argue that literature and medicine interacted in the Romantic period not just thematically, as Alan Richardson, Hermione de Almeida, and others have shown, but also formally. Reading Autopsy contends that medical science played a constitutive role in shaping literary form and reading practices in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Dissective reading, free indirect style, elegiac postmortem, and pathography display structures of thought analogous to hermeneutics in medicine, a phenomenon which I call “medical formalism.” This term describes not only what critics from M. H. Abrams to Denise Gigante have noticed as a Romantic imperative to read literary texts as biological structures, in keeping with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of “organic form,” but also multiple framings of the human body and its symptomology as both object and agent of epistemological inquiry. Through readings of William Wordsworth, John Keats, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Mary and Percy Shelley, Alfred Tennyson, and others, the study tests the mutual formation of literature and medicine during the rise of specialization, and points to the centrality of diagnosis in the Romantic act of reading—setting the scene for the modern literary-critical practice of symptomatic reading.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Dames, Nicholas J.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 5, 2016