Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature.
Extraordinary Bodies explores the representations of physical disability in nineteenth and twentieth century America. But more than introducing historians to some of the best work in the newly emerging field of disability studies, this compact, provocative book opens up exciting questions that will be of interest to scholars of gender, race, and the problem of identity in American culture. It is an adventurous, sensible, passionate book that invites readers to rethink the ground-breaking work of theorists who have shaped academic discourse on marginality and the female body over the past two decades.
Thomson's argument is both straight-forward and complex. "I propose," she writes in the conclusion, "that gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability are related products of the same social processes and practices that shape bodies according to ideological structures." She aims to "uncover ... some of the complexities of these processes as they simultaneously make and interpret disability." (136) At one level then, the book explores changing attitudes toward the disabled body through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arguing that the growing credibility of modern medicine had a tremendous impact on how the public saw and defined these bodies. At another level, however, Thomson acknowledges the complexity of this process, pointing out that there is no simple model of social control at work, that all the representations remained in a state of flux just as they are today. Underlying her argument is a plea not to lose sight of the present. She constantly invites readers to think about disability not as a pathology but as a form of identity, as extraordinary rather than abnormal, noting that these bodies should require accommodation rather than compensation. We should, the book argues, think critically about the politics of appearance and its broader meaning for the definition of American culture.
The book divides into two sections, one theoretical and the other analytical. Historians will find the theoretical materials more rewarding than the analysis partly because Thomson, like her fellow literary scholars, uses history rather than studies it. For example, the analytical section suffers from a vague chronology that becomes especially apparent in the book's last two chapters which deal with close textual readings: one explores nineteenth-century works that exude what Thomson calls "benevolent materialism" (the sentimental fiction of Harriet Beacher Stowe, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps), while the other looks at Ann Perry, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde who depict powerful disabled women in the twentieth century. To be sure, the contrast and the implied chronological shift from disabled characters being literary pawns to their being free agents are intriguing and powerful. The problem? Thomson is comparing apples (white women writers in the nineteenth century) and oranges (black women writers in the twentieth) simply because both groups portray disabled women characters. This one variable seems inadequate for sustaining an analysis that posits such a dramatic shift in representation.
The most historical chapter examines the rise and fall of the freak show from 1835 through 1940, making intriguing comparisons between the entertainment industry and the growing influence of science. While not calling for such a book to be filled with names and dates to show historical prowess, I would urge future scholars to move beyond Thomson's generalities such as the advent of mass culture, the rise of scientific culture, and the growing contradictions between the universalizing impulses of democracy and the ideology of the self-made man. It would be fascinating, for example, to discover the nuances of changing attitudes toward the extraordinary body over time by placing history rather than literature at the center of analysis.
But to dwell on these criticisms is to miss the point and value of this marvelous book, which I think lies in its opening section, "Politicizing Bodily Differences." Thomson has read widely and digested an impressive quantity of literary criticism, social theory, and feminist theory, as well as American history, medical history, and disability studies. (Readers should not ignore her copious, often indispensable footnotes, many of which, in my opinion, should have been integrated into the body of the book.) The first two chapters, "Disability, Identity, and Representation: An Introduction," and "Theorizing Disability" will surely be classics, and should be required reading in any course dealing with the history of the body, modern women's history, or the history of race in America because they raise such provocative questions. What role has disability played in American life, and why? What is the relationship between feminine frailty and the helpless disabled person? How do class and race play a role in these relationships? What does the disabled person tell us about the "ideal" American and how that identity is constructed at a time when democracy itself is still being defined?
Because Extraordinary Bodies raises far more questions than answers, some might fault Thomson for not doing better historical homework. But in fact she has opened a new world for exploration, and for this reason, generations of historians will long remain in her debt.
Catherine J. Kudlick University of California, Davis
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|Author:||Kudlick, Catherine J.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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