Gross Anatomies: Fictions of the Physical in American Literature

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The 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States witnessed an increasing prevalence of the mutilated human body, evidenced in factory statistics that document the toll machines and industry took on human corporeal form and in narratives recounting medical cases in surgical manuals.

Such anatomies also are widely featured in American literary texts of the same era as authors, in an attempt to assuage the horror associated with disintegrating exterior and interior identities, turned medical practice into metaphor in order to explore precisely what had become of corporeal and metaphysical identity. They include detailed and often gruesome portrayals of the mutilated body, a trope that emerges from three particular agents: the horrific American Civil War and World War I that both produced remarkable numbers of anatomically fragmented men; the very same machines that enabled mass quantities and efficient work; and institutions such as politics, economics, and medical practices.

Beginning with Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', this study focuses on literary texts in which anatomical mutilation is prominent, including S. Weir Mitchell's 'The Case of George Dedlow', Nathanael West's A Cool Million, short fiction by Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O'Connor, advertisements and sales catalogues for turn-of-the-20th-century prosthetics, and finally, a reading of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love within the context of Gunter Von Hagens's Korper-welten/Body Worlds exhibit.

This desire to intervene in the body suggests more than a testing of form or a quest for physiological knowledge. It highlights a deeper concern about human identity, one structured on both fragmentation and augmentation of the body. To be sure, these instruments and new ways of conceiving of the body do uncover secrets hidden in the body; at the same time, however, they reveal that no matter the technological or mechanical advancement the body remains, ultimately, complexly unknowable.

These texts reflect the modernist ethos in their wilful desire to break down the corporeal form -through anatomisation dissection, and mutilation - not only to discover what its physical anatomy harboured, but more importantly to attempt to uncover the humanity that inhabited such corporeal form. The mutilated body, wilfully damaged by weapons of war and machines of industry, politics and economics, is far more than a harbinger of a loss of identity to come; these mutilated corporeal forms, themselves unrecognisable, embody the unknown and unknowable self.

Laura L. Behling teaches American literature and culture at Gustavus Adolphus College.
^ Literary Criticism ^

(9781575911199)

SKU 9781575911199
Barcode # 9781575911199
Brand AUP
Artist / Author Laura L. BEHLING

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