Aug 25 2009

Bryan Waterman, “Arthur Mervyn’s Medical Repository and the Early Republic’s Knowledge Industries”

by at 9:04 am under Orals,Writing Sample

Brown and his relationship to the medical sphere (could the same be said for Melville, at least as far as an awareness and engagement with medical science in his novels is concerned?):

The present essay’s task is, above all, to locate Brown’s authorial self-understanding as an observer, organizer, and exhibitor of such information in relation to the knowledge-producing projects undertaken by his associates who were medical professionals. To do so requires that we take seriously Brown’s statement, in the preface to Arthur Mervyn, that the novel is his “venture” into “medical and political discussions of [yellow fever]…afloat in the community” (231). This prefatory statement reminds us that Brown’s novel is only a small part of the flood of printed and spoken material that poured from early American yellow fever epidemics (Waterman 216).

Examining the Repository’s stores of “medical eloquence” opens new windows into the medical content of Brown’s fiction and reveals more fully than we have been conditioned to see the ways in which early Republican “literature” participates in broader cultures of information and knowledge production (Waterman 224).

Medical eloquence–the intersection between novelistic/poetical style and the rhetoric of medical literature in the Early American medical journal, Medical Repositories:

Emerging within a “literary” culture broadly conceived, the Repository shared with Arthur Mervyn an assumption that great nations are built on exemplary writing that explores in minute detail the unmapped terrains–cultural, geographical, geological–that confirm their distinction in novelty. Its creation of a national audience of medical readers depended, the editors believed, on a balance between imaginative form and informational content that Elihu Smith captured in a striking term “medical eloquence” (Diary 191). The concern for the poetics of medical discussion perhaps came naturally to Smith and his coeditor Samuel Latham Mitchill, both of whom composed poetry on medical and nonmedical subjects, but Smith’s diary entries frame “medical eloquence” as a deliberate strategy for creating a general, educated audience (Waterman 221).

Information of information and knowledge production:

During the New York outbreak of 1795, Elihu Smith pointed in his diary to a concern he shared with cultural critics across the American landscape–that rumors about the fever, in their constant retellings, “acquired redoubled horro” until cities found themselves in a “violent state of alarm” (57). Unmanaged information yielded the worst possible audience responses. The unregulated flow of information, good and bad, made men whose tenuous social standing depended on being better “informed” than their “inferiors” anxious for “authentic intelligence” about the disease (Nord 25-26).

Septon, Oxygen, and the materiality of air:

Published in the Repository’s first volume, Mitchill’s poem contains both the basic principles of his effort to “account for nearly all disease” and his response to the reception issues at stake for his readers (Courtney Robert Hall 31). Mitchill’s Doctrine of Septon holds that “two natural forces”–Oxygen and Septon–exist “in the universe to balance each other” (35). Oxygen, following Priestley and Lavoisier, is the principle of life; “Septon” (a name Mitchill derives, like septic, from the Greek word for putrescent) is the “principle of dissolution” (35). When the two combine, he argues, they release “pestilential fluids” into the atmosphere–the noxious vapors that so concerned climatists and sanitationists because they were believed to generate yellow fever. In order to counter the progress of pestilence, Mitchill prescribed the use of alkalis–lime and potash in particular–to neutralize Septon. For this reason, Americans whitewashed the interiors of their homes with lime, and some even ingested the stuff (Waterman 225).

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