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Visceral Romanticism: The Literature and Culture of Digestion, 1780-1830


This dissertation argues that the bowels are the Romantic period’s paradigmatic organ: a somatic and figurative space that connects body, environment, and literal as well as literary consumption. I contend that when viewed through the alimentary canal Romantic literature and culture appear very different from the still dominant critical narrative that emphasizes imaginative transcendence of the body. I also depart from the more recent, materialist turn in Romantic literary study that tends to focus solely on the nervous system or on largely clinical considerations of medical history. Defamiliarizing Romanticism, this dissertation assembles an archive of poetry, memoir, a novel, essays, and popular science that links food, the body, and the environment. (In)digestion is also a figurative conceit: the literary texts - by Dorothy Wordsworth, Sydney Owenson, John Keats, and Lord Byron - I examine are often formally undigested, in the sense that they are disjointed, chaotic, or difficult to categorize.

Throughout my project, I contend that these texts shaped, and were shaped by, the era’s medical and environmental discourses. Rather than focusing on either the body, food, or the environment in Romantic literature, I consider these concerns as integrated phenomena, as writers at the time did. The Romantic period can be read as a sort of medical interregnum, an era unencumbered by a coherent ideology to express the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy society. This dissertation traces some of the relationships between environment and identity - often in a collective sense - during a time when Britain’s medical and agricultural practices were modernizing and becoming standardized. As these transformations took place, but had not yet taken hold, they opened up a new range of possibilities for understanding and expressing the connection between bodies and the wider world, a connection mediated by the bowels.

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