The Natural Woman: Science and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America
Author: Sheila Liming
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2013
My dissertation, called “The Natural Woman: Science and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America,” focuses on the discursive exchanges between gender, genre, and scientific thought in the 1800s.
In “The Natural Woman,” I examine American women writers’ knowledge of, and reactions to, advances in science and medicine during this era. I highlight the collusion between scientific expertise and literary expertise in nineteenth-century America, investigating the ways in which literary critics took their cues from flawed scientific thinking, but also the extent to which scientists – particularly biologists – used suppositions descendant from literary type to furnish their thinking about nature and femaleness. This project intervenes in several fields: while scholars tend to view literature of the American nineteenth century as bifurcated by both gender and genre (male/female, Romantic/sentimental, etc.), I highlight the cross- pollination of such categories, and interstitial challenges to such modes of categorization (in the form of intersexed or hermaphroditic narrators and narratives, for example). I also engage with a growing body of science and technology studies targeting this period, which tend to frame science as progressing towards a modern standard, while I show it, alongside literature, as continuously harkening back to the credulousness of earlier historical moments.
My analysis draws from the work of well-known American authors like Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Nathanial Hawthorne. I also, however, grant careful justice to those figures from this period who have been utterly forgotten – like the late-nineteenth-century behaviorist Helen Bradford Thompson, and popular fiction writer Anne Moncure Crane – and document the ways in which their stories have been rewritten (in some cases, quite literally) by both the scientific and literary establishments. Crane and Thompson, for example, both suffered in having their work first critically dismissed, then plagiarized by others in their respective fields: their stories comprise another link binding nineteenth-century mechanisms of American expertise – on the one hand, literary criticism and publishing; on the other, scientific training and education – to each other.