Ask An Americanist New Research

Ask an Americanist: Dr. Josh Doty

1. Could you give us a brief overview of your upcoming monograph The Perfecting of Nature

The book is about the ways that antebellum authors responded to the notion that social reform might be brought about by reforming the human body itself. This idea was a common thread in many contemporary reformist discourses—it connects such various movements as dress reform, temperance, and dietary reform. One of the animating concepts behind this way of understanding social reform is what I call “bioplasticity,” or the body’s ability to change or be changed. Writers and reformers from Sylvester Graham to Walt Whitman investigated the idea that societal change begins with bodily change, that one’s diet might make one a better participant in democracy or that a physical fitness regime might override one’s hereditary predisposition to vice. One of the book’s goals is to recover this notion of the body as endlessly changing and changeable. In doing so, it is in conversation with the work of Justine Murison and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, among others.

I argue that literary authors do not just depict or represent the notion of bodily change—they intervene in the reform discourses they address in a variety of ways, and in doing so they position social reform itself as plastic. The book’s four chapters address works by Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who really should get more scholarly attention than he does.

2. What led you to/sparked your interest in this area of research? 

I was introduced to the study of science and medicine in American literature by Jane F. Thrailkill, who was my dissertation director at UNC Chapel Hill. Under her tutelage, I learned much about the striking unfamiliarity of nineteenth-century notions about the body. Many of us, if we thought about what nineteenth-century Americans might have believed about the human body, would take the position that their beliefs were just developing versions of what we believe today. But their ideas aren’t just inchoate versions of our own; rather, they are often pretty alien. This is a function of their being situated within epistemological structures that are very different from our own.

This way of looking at the past gripped me. I found myself deep in the world of antebellum dietary reform and discovered that Moby-Dick engages this discourse at a profound level. Ishmael ponders whether eating too much chowder might affect his mind, for instance, which is a concept that any number of contemporary dietary reformers espoused, as I discuss in the book’s second chapter. At the same time I was researching dietary reform, Zachary Turpin discovered Whitman’s guide to “Manly Health and Training,” which demonstrated Whitman’s own deep interest in physical training and dietary management. I just kept reading from there.

3. Was this a specifically American phenomenon during this period? Did they draw from ideas abroad? Or, in turn, influence the emergence of similar ideals elsewhere? 

This wasn’t a specifically American phenomenon. Percy Bysshe Shelley, for instance, wrote a book titled A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813) in which he claims that all “derangements” of mind and body can be traced to eating meat and drinking alcohol. But I don’t see British authors, for example, taking as much of an interest in this subject until the Victorian period, when you see a greater interest in nerve science on the part of writers like Thomas Hardy. That being said, Charlotte Brontë and other Gothic writers are certainly interested in the human body.

Part of what makes antebellum social reform so interesting for me is its DIY ethos: you can take better care of your body, which makes you a contributor to societal well-being. If this notion is more (but not exclusively) an American phenomenon, it may well be so because of this individualistic logic.

The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a number of disciplines and belief systems on both sides of the Atlantic that, in their insistence on the primacy of the individual, might owe something to the health reform discourses of the antebellum period: I have in mind Muscular Christianity, which tied physical strength to Christian belief, and Christian Science, which, especially in its early days, posited sickness as curable by prayer.

4. How important was the male/female distinction in this idea of the “bioplastic body”?

In the book, I discuss how the reform discourses I examine assume a white, male, middle-class audience: thus the preponderance of that demographic in my authors. But women such as Margaret Fuller and Mary Peabody Mann, Sophia Hawthorne’s sister and a talented writer, were deeply involved in health reform. Mann, for instance, published a wonderful cookbook in 1857 titled Christianity in the Kitchen: A Physiological Cook-Book, which applies dietary reform principles to American cookery. And one finds in Catharine Beecher’s works on domesticity a great deal of advice on the human body and its care.

That being said, it was clear that the wives of men immersed in certain strains of reformist dietetics were often faced with the task of preparing food that was at once edible, affordable, and in conformity with the latest dietary strictures. Louisa May Alcott wrote a hilarious short story titled “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) in which she recounts life in Fruitlands, her father Amos Bronson Alcott’s catastrophically unsuccessful commune. The story describes how a character named Sister Hope, a stand-in for her mother Abby May Alcott, had to make food with only “maple sugar, dried peas and beans, barley and hominy, meal of all sorts, potatoes, and dried fruit” at hand. Anything else, like meat, butter, eggs, or tea, was verboten in Fruitlands as being both physically and spiritually harmful. In Alcott’s telling, the demand for the “right” food came from men—the labor came from women.

5. If you could choose a different area of study – any time, place, concept, what would it be?

My great love is literary horror, and that’s actually the subject of my next research arc. I’m interested in investigating the history of the idea that reading horror comes with certain somatic effects—that Dracula gives you gooseflesh, or that The Haunting of Hill House is spine-tingling. Where does this idea come from? Why is horror so closely associated with readers’ bodies?

Josh Doty is an assistant professor of English at St. Mary’s University.

The Perfecting of Nature: Reforming Bodies in Antebellum Literature is upcoming with UNC Press: