Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
“Anticontagionism and Social Reform in Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature” explores the relationship between anticontagionism and the social role of the writer in England and America in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Anticontagionism posited that epidemic disease was not contagious, but instead was spread through filth-generated miasmas. For socially conscious writers who believed in this popular theory (Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Jacobs), anticontagionism provided a metaphor for and a framework through which to prevent and treat social problems as if they were epidemic diseases. Using the logic of anticontagionism, these writers presented characters and settings rife with social or moral illnesses like slavery, poverty, rape, war, illegitimate children, and homosexuality often considered too taboo to be treated directly in fiction and poetry. By portraying these social diseases as non-contagious side effects of an unhealthy environment, these writers were able to discuss taboo topics without fear of spreading immorality, sin, or violence through contact with their books. Additionally, in comparing social problems to diseases, and subjecting them to anticontagionist logic, the writers in this study suggest that mediated exposure to taboo social problems through a book was not only safe, but could even be beneficial for their readers and to society at large.