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