Date Awarded

Spring 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Elizabeth Barnes

Committee Member

Susan Donaldson

Committee Member

Jennifer Putzi

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Francesca Sawaya


This dissertation brings the field of critical disability studies to bear on organizational paradigms of nineteenth-century American literature. “Reading Bodies” intervenes in these fields with the claim that the book in a variety of formats, publications, and circulations acts as a disciplinary tool that seeks to arrange physical and mental characteristics and capacities into the category of disability. This project moves beyond examining representations of disability to demonstrate that the same social, cultural, and political forces that generated literary movements and outpourings – such as nationalism, displacement of Native peoples, slavery, and state-sanctioned violence – also generated material conditions of impairment that formal literary conventions sought to consolidate as “disability.” Individuals and communities reading, writing, and responding to the genres of seduction, historical fiction, slave narrative, Civil War poetry, and children’s literature both deployed and challenged formal literary conventions to model or defy normative and deviant behaviors. The formal characteristics and aesthetic concerns of the field of American literature, I find, are products of larger social processes that both cause impairment and that communicate and mark constructions of disability into and onto reading and non-reading publics. as social and literary forces coalesced the category “disability,” often those populations most vulnerable to impairment responded by challenging, resisting, or completely renovating the conventions and categories of textual and bodily behavior. In a variety of interactions with the book, nineteenth-century women, Native Americans, African Americans, wounded soldiers, and children offer alternative intersectional perspectives and possibilities for what it means to produce literature and for what it means to inhabit a body. Those works considered literary outliers both in their day and in contemporary critical assessments, such as Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (1808), the Life of Black Hawk (1833), and midcentury children’s books printed for sight-impaired readers, reveal the normative underpinnings of literary and bodily taxonomies.



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