Erasmus Wilson.  Nerves of the neck and mouth . Lithograph, with watercolor, by William Fairland. Plate to: Jones Quain and William J.E. Wilson,  The nerves of the human body , London: Taylor and Walton, 1839. Credit:  Wellcome Collection .  CC BY

Erasmus Wilson. Nerves of the neck and mouth. Lithograph, with watercolor, by William Fairland. Plate to: Jones Quain and William J.E. Wilson, The nerves of the human body, London: Taylor and Walton, 1839. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Pathographies: sensation, susceptibility, and desire in Nineteenth-Century America

“Pathographies” (in progress) reads an understudied archive of hospital captivity narratives to understand the proliferation of diagnostic categories in the nineteenth century aiming to account for strange affective experiences. I develop pathographia as a critical term to describe a medico-literary practice that ratifiesat the intersection of life writing and asylum narrative, the symptomatological subject as an author of neurological reality. Toward this end, my book moves from sensation (aesthesis) to susceptibility (sthenia) to desire (orexis), theorizing the narrativity of affective life beyond popular nineteenth-century cognitive models of sense, perception, and volition. Indeed, the alternative taxonomies my book suggests de-pathologize incongruous cognitive processes and disarticulate them from the mandate for classically cohesive thought, engendering a new sensorium, and with it, newly legible narratives of previously unaccounted perceptive experience.

Building on recent scholarship exploring the therapeutic possibilities of life narrative, I demonstrate how literary narratives of the nineteenth century mobilized contemporaneous diagnoses, including mania, hysteria, neurasthenia, and anorexia, to unsettle empiricist and masculine understandings of cognition. To this end, I place asylum narratives, memoirs, and experimental forms of life writing by authors such as Elizabeth Packard, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Stoddard, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in dialogue with psychological treatises from Benjamin Rush to William James. While canonical literary and clinical texts tended to depict civic sensibility as a capacity of sensorial differentiation that was available almost exclusively to white men, the pathographic texts in my archive reveal a feminized sphere of letters that challenges patriarchal constructions of knowledge. Just as significantly, they present alternative and civically inclusive epistemologies. Along these lines, my book contextualizes contemporary feminist action, from Nasty Women to the #MeToo movement, in terms of the long history of pathologized femininity.