Previous issue's reviews | Reviews in Brief | Sept/Oct Contents | Gazette Home

Sick Culture
The language of disease in the Victorian Era.
By Beth Kephart


Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture

By Erin O’Connor, Faculty.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.
272 pages; $18.95 (paper).
Order this book

In the acknowledgments of her new book, Raw Material, Assistant Professor of English Erin O’Connor thanks her parents for raising her in the “modern equivalent of Mr. Venus’s shop, among bones, skulls, bottled preparations, illustrated medical books, and the sharp, irreducible smell of formaldehyde.” It was an irreverent household, she says, one that taught her to “combine labor with creation,” one that also inspired in her the desire, from the age of six, to grow up to be a writer.
       It is no stretch to extrapolate the curiosity-enamored child from the endlessly inquisitive adult after reading O’Connor’s book. Full of the idiosyncratic and the macabre, insatiably researched, Raw Material is not the sort of book that can be reduced to a single tag line. It’s about the language of disease in the Victorian culture, about how a rapidly industrializing society perceived and named and adapted to the ugly ills that had beset it, about how knowledge itself is produced, and about a whole lot of other things besides. It is multidisciplinary and thematically far-reaching, drawing on medicine, literature, political economy, sociology, anthropology, and popular advertising to explore “the industrial logic of disease.” Raw Material, O’Connor explains, “centers on the epistemological continuity between the disorderly materiality of unhealthy bodies and the radically altered social order of an increasingly materialist culture, examining how the forms and figures of urban industrial disorder filtered through the language surrounding actual disease.”
O’Connor draws out her theme through four extended case studies of Victorian disease states or obsessions—Asiatic cholera, breast cancer, amputation and prosthetics, and freak shows. It’s not a book, in other words, for the fainthearted, not bedtime reading for the innocent brood. Nor is it a popular history for the lay reader, for Raw Material is the culmination of O’Connor’s dissertation work and is as much about its overt subject matter—somatics and signifiers—as it is about the academic sub-specialty known as cultural studies. Slow going is required as one makes one’s way through sentences such as the following: “The material patterns of industrial pathology found a metaphorical counterpart in medical models of disease, which mapped productive language onto pathological process as a means of investigating the meaning of corporeality in machine culture.” And yet, O’Connor’s enthusiasm for her material is, well, infectious, and her fascinations become ours as we sift through the ugly, seamy underworld of life in the Victorian age.
Asiatic cholera, which erupted violently and could kill within days, is the focus of O’Connor’s first case study. The disease shriveled its victims black and unrecognizable with sudden, devastating diarrhea; it swept into the filthy, festering English slums and stayed, exposing, as O’Connor says, “the frailties of England’s urban industrial structure” and ultimately inspiring the country’s first true sanitary reforms. It was an eastern infection, one that would never have gotten as far west as it did had not England asserted its international heft through colonization—an awful paradox that provoked Victorian physicians and social critics to question the ways in which the west “was securing its own global power.” Contagion became a metaphor, the means by which critics began to describe not just the medical process but the “imperial imagination.” Asiatic cholera infected more than the body, in other words. It infected knowledge itself, social perspective. It “metaphorically obliterated” the status of its decimated victims.
Likewise, O’Connor asserts, breast cancer, and the ways in which breast cancer was perceived, diagnosed, and (not) treated, obliterated women, raising questions about their compatibility with the new industrial age. “Tumors were treated as scenes of mass production,” O’Connor writes, “as factories that transformed female tissue into rotten imitations of market items—bad eggs, rank cheese, squishy fruit.” The factory routine that kept women away from their nursing babies and found them bent and dripping over smelly, spewing, noisy, dehumanizing machines instead was not just eating away at souls, apparently; it was eating away at the flesh.
Whereas the victims of cholera and breast cancer were effaced by their times, those fitted with artificial limbs or hawked as freak show specials were, O’Connor argues, in some ways augmented, retooled to fit industrial demands and Victorian morality. “Prosthetics and monsters rebuilt the self by taking bodily anomaly as the condition of a new personal integrity,” she writes. “Framing amputees as whole men with artificial limbs and marketing monsters as ’living curiosities’ worked paradoxically to secure their humanity by objectifying them.”
Full of theories and conjectures, talk of tropes and synechdoches, ontology and machine culture, Raw Material is at its best when it is portraying the spectacle of those strange Victorian years, painting the time in its many horrifying hues with a careful historian’s brush. O’Connor’s descriptions of Asiatic cholera at work are vivid, relentless, fearless, and consequently unforgettable.
Her tales of copper workers physically oxidizing and matchmakers turning phosphorescent and silk twisters who themselves become twisted and incapacitated are shocking, harrowing, and stomach-turning—a panacea for anyone who ever dared think of ergonomics as a tangential science. But it is her final case study about monsters and freak shows that contains the most marvelous, evocative passages. We feel that we have been taken back in time, that we are standing among the transfixed and giddily horrified crowds, that we are staring despite ourselves at the monsters on the stage.
O’Connor brings P.T. Barnum and his cast of oddball characters to credible life, ushering the madness of the era to the forefront, reminding us how far and how little we have, as a society, come: “When Barnum took over New York City’s American Museum on January 1, 1842, the place was a moribund dusty repository of old bones, moth-eaten skins, moldering dioramas, and mediocre art,” O’Connor writes, with the energy of the curious little girl who grew up to become the curious adult. “Within months Barnum had converted the museum into a hugely successful enterprise, tripling profits through skilled management, shameless promotion, and the peculiar blend of genuine instruction, unabashed humbug, and prurient appeal that was to become his trademark.” Barnum’s genius, O’Connor suggests, was in recognizing that monstrosity was not a disease; rather it was a “healthful adaptation to modern culture,” celebrating damage “as the image of a brave new world.”

Beth Kephart C’82 is the author of two award-winning books. Her third, about love and loss on a coffee farm in El Salvador, is due out next April from W.W. Norton.


A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.


Illustrated Encyclopedia & Anecdotal History

By Peter S. Horvitz C’66 and Joachim Horvitz.
New York: S.P.I. Books, 2001. 288 pp., $19.95.
Order this book

From the beginning, Jews have played a prominent role in our national pastime, but have often been ignored. This is the first baseball encyclopedia dedicated to naming and honoring every Jewish contributor. Covering tragic moments such as Herb Gorman dying on the ballfield and Erskine Meyer quitting the sport after finding out about his teammates on the 1919 White Sox taking bribes, to happier occasions such as Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, the book also remembers scores of lesser known players like Cal Abrams, who shielded Jackie Robinson with his body, and Ron Blomberg, who stood in as the very first Designated Hitter. Peter S. Horvitz and Joachim Horvitz are a father-and-son team: Peter recently retired as a Philadelphia high school teacher and English department chair; Joachim works professionally in graphic design and has been collaborating with his father in collecting Jewish sports memorabilia for most of his life.


ANOTHER CITY: Writing from Los Angeles
Edited by David L. Ulin C’84.
San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001. 292 pp., $16.95.
Order this book

A group of both well-established and up-and-coming young writers who have made Los Angeles their home contribute short stories, chronicles, essays, and poems about life there. From the entertainment industry to earthquakes, riots, and racism, this collection embodies the raw energy and clash of destinies that define contemporary L.A. David Ulin was the book editor of the LA Reader from 1993 to 1996. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and writes regularly for the LA Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Los Angeles Times.


Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America

By Barron H. Lerner C’82.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 416 pp., $30.00.
Order this book

America has become intimately familiar with the symbols of breast cancer: pink ribbons, survivor testimonials, and Races for the Cure. But why have we chosen to wage such a fierce battle against this disease? Why has it become nearly impossible to describe breast cancer control efforts without using military metaphors? What does our war against breast cancer reveal about America’s faith in curative medical interventions and scientific research? Why is breast cancer the most feared disease among women? Dr. Barron Lerner, a practicing physician, seeks to answer these questions, opening a window on how American culture understands and treats disease. Lerner is the Angelica Berrie Gold Foundation Associate Professor at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he teaches internal medicine, history, and ethics. He is the author of Contagion and Confinement: Controlling Tuberculosis Along the Skid Road.



By John A. Kastor C’53.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2001. 487 pp., $59.50.
Order this book

This book investigates the conditions that have led some of the nation’s top teaching hospitals to merge with each other and how the organizations have fared since joining together. The mergers are analyzed and compared in order to identify various methods of merger formation as well as ways in which other newly formed hospitals might accomplish a variety of important goals. Dr. John Kastor is professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and formerly the chair of its department of medicine as well as chief of the medical service at the University of Maryland Hospital. He is the author of Arrhythmias.


VISUALIZING YOUR BUSINESS: Let Graphics Tell the Story
By Keith R. Herrmann C’82.
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. 240 pp., $54.95 (hardcover with disk).
Order this book

This guide provides managers, business owners, and consultants with the necessary tools to manage information, set goals, measure progress, and make fast decisions by quickly evaluating financial information and communicating it to their companies. Packed with real-world examples and dozens of illustrations, this book shows managers how to make memorable presentations that demystify complex issues and integrate financial and non-financial information. Included is a CD-ROM that gives 25 examples in PowerPoint and Excel. Keith Herrmann is a controller with BlueStar Systems Group.


By Dinah Miller C’84.
Baltimore: America House, 2000. 214 pp., $19.95.
Order this book

This is a novel about four women at a public psychiatric clinic on the day that the clinic’s closing is announced. As the day begins, each woman tells her own story, focusing on a critical situation in her personal life as well as her perceptions of the other characters at the Charm City Community Mental Health Center. At the end of the day, each has come to some sense of resolution about her personal crisis, as well as the turbulence caused in her life by the center’s closing. Dr. Dinah Miller practices psychiatry in Baltimore.


Fieldwork, Networks, and the Making of Cultural Knowledge in Central Africa

By Lyn Schumaker G’90 Gr’94.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.
376 pp., $59.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
Order this book

This book tells the story of anthropological fieldwork centered at the Rhodes-Livingston Institute in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) during the mid-20th century. Focusing on collaborative processes rather than on the activity of individual researchers, Dr. Lyn Schumaker gives the assistants and informants of anthropologists a central role in the making of anthropological knowledge. She shows how local conditions and local ideas about culture and history, as well as previous experience of outsiders’ interest, shape local people’s responses to anthropological fieldwork and help them, in turn, to influence the construction of knowledge about their societies and lives. Schumaker is the Wellcome Research Lecturer at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Manchester.


ADVANTAGE: The Theory and Practice of Country-of-Origin Effect

By Eugene D. Jaffe W’58 Gr’66 and Israel D. Nebenzahl.
Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press, 2001. 190 pp., $28.00.
Order this book

This book features in-depth analyses of interactions between brand, country, and product images; real-life examples of country branding; and guidelines for managerial action, making it a resource for students, international-marketing managers, industry leaders, and government officials. Subjects covered include consumer’s perception of countries as sources for brands and products, how to manage national-promotion campaigns of country image, the use of the made-in label as a trade barrier and the future role of brand and country images in the age of e-commerce. Eugene D. Jaffe is professor at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Previous issue's reviews | Reviews in Brief | Sept/Oct Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/21/01
Book sales are made in association with Amazon.com. By purchasing a book using a link above, a percentage of the profits go to the University of Pennsylvania.

GAME FACE: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?
Edited by Jane Gottesman. New York: Random House, 2001. 224 pp., $35.00.

A celebration of sports and physical daring in the lives of girls and women, this book—accompanied by a nationwide exhibition— features photographs by America’s best photographers, including Mary Ellen Mark FA’62 ASC’64 Hon’94, Lee Friedlander, Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, and Dorothea Lange. The above image by Mark is entitled “Trampolinist Jennifer Parilla.” © Mary Ellen Mark 2000.


The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball
Written and directed by SalomÈ Aguilera Skvirsky C’97.
PBS Video, $24.98.

This film, which premiered on PBS in July, focuses on the role the Cuban National League plays in Cuban society and how that prized position has been jeopardized by the recent player defections. Against the backdrop of the 38th Cuban National Championship Series, this 60-minute documentary explores the tension between players who have left Cuba in search of freedom and multimillion-dollar contracts, and the government, which has invested substantially in their training with the expectation that they will play for the Cuban National League. This book ultimately probes a compelling sociopolitical conflict that is fundamental to any political ideology—the interests of the individual versus those of the “greater good.”