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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Degeneration nation : the body, medicine, and the culture of biofuturity in American Literature, 1883-1928

  • Author(s): Stuckey, Michelle Ann
  • et al.

"Degeneration Nation: Reproduction, Disability, and Biofuturity in American Literature, 1880-1930" disentangles the relationship between Progressive Era American fiction and eugenic science. Specifically, I argue that race, gender, class, and disability converge in the discourse of the degeneration, which, by contesting rigid standards of corporeal and cultural normalcy, represents the threat of difference posed by people with disabilities, poor people, and ethnic and racial minorities. I contend that as a rhetorical answer to the specter of degeneracy, a culture of biofuturity emerged in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. I use the term "culture of biofuturity" to capture how literary and cultural production as well as social movements of the Progressive Era imagined a future in which improved social relations were inextricable from the improvement of the body through scientific eugenic reproduction practices that enabled "better breeding." In "Degeneration Nation," I read literary works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Frances E.W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Charles Chestnutt, Edith Wharton, and Edith Summers Kelley in relation to contemporary socio-cultural projects of the period, such as the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), public health initiatives in San Francisco and Panama, post-Reconstruction black uplift movements, eugenic family studies such as Charles Davenport's The Hill Folk, better baby and fitter family contests such as Mary Watts and Dr. Florence Sherbon's "Fitter Family for Future Firesides," and the birth control activism of Margaret Sanger. I also discuss medical writing by major medical figures of the period, such as S. Weir Mitchell, George M. Beard, and Miles Vandahurst Lynk. I read literature in conjunction with social and cultural texts in order to contextualize the literary works under study here as participants in complex social activities, as constituted by specific discursive practices and as outgrowths of a specific mode of production, as a means of better understanding the symbolic economies of the texts which govern their possibilities for meaning

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