Date

4-28-2020

Description

Robert Montgomery Bird, who counted physiology among his professions and renowned race scientist Samuel George Morton among his friends, published his satirical novel "Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself" in 1836. A product of Jacksonian Democracy and nineteenth-century ideas about the body, the novel argues that the body defines the mind. It uses this point to contest the fundamentals of democracy by medicalizing racism and classism. By using race science and stereotypes, the novel defines a variety of people--but especially racial and ethnic minorities--as physically and, therefore, by its logic, mentally flawed. The novel then places the mind of a white man, born to a "self-made" landowner, in these bodies. The novel uses the adverse experiences had by this man, the eponymous Sheppard Lee, while in these bodies to discount the notion that interpersonal sympathy and national coherence are possible. Through this ideology, and through several explicitly political scenes, the novel argues for republicanism over the democracy that was gradually replacing it during the Jackson presidency. This topic is especially relevant in a time that is acknowledging the importance of the medical humanities and a time when white supremacist and nationalist groups are edging ever closer to the American mainstream due largely to the current presidential administration.

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Apr 28th, 12:00 AM

"A Great Disturbance in My Inner Man": The Impossibility of National Unity in Robert Montgomery Bird's Sheppard Lee

Robert Montgomery Bird, who counted physiology among his professions and renowned race scientist Samuel George Morton among his friends, published his satirical novel "Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself" in 1836. A product of Jacksonian Democracy and nineteenth-century ideas about the body, the novel argues that the body defines the mind. It uses this point to contest the fundamentals of democracy by medicalizing racism and classism. By using race science and stereotypes, the novel defines a variety of people--but especially racial and ethnic minorities--as physically and, therefore, by its logic, mentally flawed. The novel then places the mind of a white man, born to a "self-made" landowner, in these bodies. The novel uses the adverse experiences had by this man, the eponymous Sheppard Lee, while in these bodies to discount the notion that interpersonal sympathy and national coherence are possible. Through this ideology, and through several explicitly political scenes, the novel argues for republicanism over the democracy that was gradually replacing it during the Jackson presidency. This topic is especially relevant in a time that is acknowledging the importance of the medical humanities and a time when white supremacist and nationalist groups are edging ever closer to the American mainstream due largely to the current presidential administration.