Healing the Republic: The Language of Health and the Culture of Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century America
In this study Joan Burbick interprets nineteenth-century narratives of health written by physicians, social reformers, lay healers, and literary artists in order to expose the conflicts underlying the creation of a national culture in America. These "fictions" of health include annual reports of mental asylums, home physician manuals, social reform books, and novels consumed by the middle class that functioned as cautionary tales of well-being. Read together these writings engage in a counterpoint of voices at once constructing and debating the hegemonic values of the emerging American nation. That political values flow from the daily exigencies of survival and enjoyment is one of the claims advanced by theorists of cultural hegemony. Broadening this assumption, the narratives of health presented here address the demands and desires of everyday life and construct a national discourse with directives on control, authority, and subordination. They articulate the wish for a healthy citizenry, freed of pain and saturated with well-being, and they insist upon specific ideologies and knowledges of the body in order to achieve this radiance of health. Divided into two parts, the work first examines the structures of authority found in health narratives and then studies the topology of the body found in a cross section of writings. The first part examines how the authority of "common sense" is pitted against that of physiological law and its transcendent "constitution" for the body. The second analyzes how specific knowledges about the brain, heart, nerves, and eye provide individual "keys" to health, indices that reveal the conflicts inherent in American nationalism. In studying thesenarratives of health, Healing the Republic confronts what Burbick sees as a certain fundamental uneasiness about democracy in America. Fearing the political freedom they hoped to embrace. Americans designed ways to control the body in the effort to create, impose, or encompass social order in a corporeal politics whose influences are felt to this day.
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