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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Blood of a Nation: Politics, Medicine, and Race in U.S. Literature, 1848-1900

  • Author(s): Frohlich, Soren
  • Advisor(s): Davidson, Michael
  • Tonkovich, Nicole
  • et al.

In “Blood of a Nation” I argue that U.S. authors’ writing about human blood (both metaphorical and literal blood) changed during the second half of the nineteenth century. The chosen texts range from poetry to medical manuals to illustrate how authors increasingly superimposed medical blood tropes on Romantic metaphors. Medical language helped them bridge the conceptual gap between bodily fluid and social metaphor. By saddling aristocracy with medicine, writers created new fictions about blood, especially occult blood, which anchors metaphors of race and gender in the bodily fluid. I argue that they supplemented political blood metaphors in support of the new nation state with medicalized blood metaphors and thus made possible scientific racism, blood quanta, and their legal codification.

Chapter one examines political blood metaphors, namely Nathaniel Hawthorne’s erasure of the nation state’s history of sovereign bloodshed in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and Ludwig von Reizenstein’s emphasis on the resulting uncanny nation filled with bloodshed in Die Geheimnisse von New Orleans (1853). Chapter two follows the rise of medical vocabulary from a school textbook to Civil War poetry and finally to a nationalist magazine. Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poem “The name – of it – is ‘Autumn’” (1862) rejects both contemporary Romantic blood metaphors and her anatomy textbook’s taxonomy because neither adequately addresses the blood on the battlefield, a critique edited out in the poem’s posthumous publication. Chapter three shows that Walt Whitman focused his collection Drum-Taps (1865) on the absorption of blood and hospital practice to reconcile the blood of the Civil War with his national vision. Chapter four argues medical texts about blood in practice really present political arguments. While William Wells Brown avoided blood in practice and theory, Edward H. Dixon made blood an occult sign for race and gender. Chapter five explores blood in scientific racism. Samuel A. Cartwright foreclosed individual agency and the freedom to change in the assertion that “black blood” is eternal and immutable. In his The Rising Son (1873), William Wells Brown ripostes that blood is a shared and mutable part of humanity. Chapter six considers the blood quanta of chattel slavery as laid out by Thomas Jefferson in 1815 as the root of the Jim Crow racism in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1893), and Pauline E. Hopkins’ Of One Blood (1903). Against the resistance of black mothers, familial blood became an unknowable truth of the legal and social erasure of black families.

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