Q&A with Sari Altschuler, Author of The Medical Imagination

Sari Altschuler is an assistant professor of English, associate director of the Humanities Center, and founding director of the minor in Health, Humanities, and Society at Northeastern University. Her book The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States was recently published with the University of Pennsylvania Press (2018), and her work has appeared in leading literary journals, including American LiteratureAmerican Literary History, and PMLA, as well as the Journal of the Early Republic and the medical journal the Lancet. She serves on the advisory board of American Quarterly and the editorial board of Early American Literature and recently coedited a special of Early American Literature (2017) on early American disability studies with Cristobal Silva.

JUNTO: As you know, The Junto is always interested in the experiences of junior scholars who have turned their dissertations into first books. How did your project and theorization of imaginative experimentation change over time?

SARI ALTSCHULER: Great question! This book is very different from my dissertation—but I had to write the dissertation in order to even begin to understand what was going on. The dissertation was about the collaborations of specific doctors and writers in Philadelphia. It was, in some ways, a very narrow and defined topic, which was good for a dissertation. But, when I started to think about what The Medical Imagination might be as a book, I wanted to do something more ambitious. In the dissertation I figured out that these doctors and writers were working together—in conversation—but for the book I wanted to understand the broader intellectual practice in which they were engaging. That’s how imaginative experimentation came to be at the center of the project. It’s an idea I only really began to think about as I finished the dissertation. Continue reading

Review: Sari Altschuler, The Medical Imagination

Sari Altschuler, The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)

Today Laurel Daen reviews Sari Altschuler’s The Medical Imagination. Laurel Daen is the 2018-2020 NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Her current book project is about disability, authority, and the formation of the American nation state. Laurel received her PhD from William & Mary in 2016 and was an NEH Long-term Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society from 2017-2018.

In the early American republic, physicians wrote poetry to try out their medical theories, writers formulated concepts that made their way into medical texts, and everyday people viewed the disciplines of medicine and literature as fundamentally intertwined. Medicine and literature were mutually constitutive and reinforcing, Sari Altschuler explains in The Medical Imagination, and their relationship was seen as crucial to the production of medical knowledge. For example, medical educators urged their students to read and write fiction with the insistence that these practices would cultivate their “microscopic eye” or ability to detect and decipher disease (4). In addition, many doctors, writers, and doctor-writers used literary forms to conduct medical research, especially about topics that were difficult to test empirically. How, for instance, was one to evaluate the workings of sympathy, the universal force commonly understood to link body part to body part in a functioning human body and person to person in a functioning society? It was through literature that early national physicians and writers engaged with these types of questions, cultivating their skills in “imaginative experimentation”—or use of the imagination to craft and assess models of health (8). Continue reading

Guest Post: Spencer McBride, Benjamin Rush and the Divine Right of Republics

We are thrilled to have another guest post from Spencer McBride, a historian and editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. You can read Spencer’s previous two posts here and here. More importantly, you can order his hot-off-the-press book, Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (UVA Press) here. You can look forward to a review and Q&A later this month. -BP

pulpit-and-nationIn researching and writing my book, Pulpit & Nation, I became keenly interested in the religious language employed by participants in the ratification debates of 1787-88. Not only did it illuminate the role of religion and clergymen in the politics of Revolutionary America, but it seemed particularly relevant to the almost canonical way in which so many twenty-first century politicians and pundits view the Constitution. Of course, when—or if—these individuals ever consult that document’s history, they rarely bother to question what political motivations drove so many of the seemingly religious expressions made by early national leaders. And there are many such statements. Yet, amid the numerous examples of Federalists and Anti-Federalists employing (and exploiting) providential language and Old Testament Biblicism in arguing for ratification, one example stands out as particularly complex in its motives and implications: the argument Benjamin Rush made for ratification in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. Continue reading

Are Your People Getting Mad?

“Are your people getting mad?,” George Washington asked Benjamin Lincoln when he heard the news of what was happening in New England in the autumn of 1786. “Many of them appear to be absolutely so,” the Massachusetts general replied, “if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidences of insanity.”[1] By the end of the 1780s, America’s revolutionary elites increasingly resorted to the same explanation. What could possibly explain the conflicts that were starting to tear apart the new republic? How could the same people who fought for the Revolution now have such different ideas about what its outcome should be? Continue reading

The History Carousel, Episode 3: Teaching Across the Pond

The History CarouselToday’s episode, “Teaching Across the Pond,” features Tom Cutterham, Ken Owen, Ben Park, and Rachel Herrmann discussing historical teachers, and debating the merits and pitfalls of teaching in the United States compared to the United Kingdom. Come for the boat race jokes; stay for the pedagogy! Continue reading