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Suffering America: Writing Pain in Nineteenth-Century United States Literature

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - USPAIN (Suffering America: Writing Pain in Nineteenth-Century United States Literature)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

The project aimed to explore how nineteenth-century American literature developed a specifically American political philosophy and literary aesthetics that emerged through representations of pain and suffering. Registering the United States’ cultural obsession with pain throughout most of the nineteenth century, Americanist literary scholar Wai-Chee Dimock remarked that, “if happiness was the key word of the eighteenth century, pain might well be the key word of the nineteenth” (Residues of Justice). The project built on this insight, while proposing that the study of literary works helps to refine our understanding of the phenomenology, the epistemology, the history, and the politics of pain in the nineteenth-century United States, offering a vantage to think about the work of pain in our time.
During the course of this two-year Fellowship, Thomas Constantinesco pursued three innovative and interrelated objectives:
- to analyse pain as generative of literary figurations and philosophical speculation;
- to explore how nineteenth-century literary accounts of pain help revise standard histories of pain;
- to investigate how literary writing mounts a challenge to the sentimental politics of pain current in the nineteenth-century United States and still very much prevalent today.
The results of USPAIN have exceeded the Fellow’s expectations, despite the disruptions occasioned by the pandemic of COVID-19. During the Fellowship, Thomas Constantinesco received 8 invitations to discuss the progress and the results of his research in seminars and international conferences. He also secured a publishing contract with Oxford University Press for a scholarly monograph titled Writing Pain in the Nineteenth-Century United States forthcoming in 2022 in the prominent “Oxford Series in American Literary History.” The book is the product of Thomas Constantinesco’s intensive research and writing during the Fellowship. It considers the aesthetic, philosophical, and ethical implications of pain across the works of canonical and less canonical authors from the nineteenth-century United States, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Henry James to Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Alice James, as the national culture of pain transformed in the wake of the invention of anaesthesia in Boston in 1846. Towards the end of the Fellowship, Thomas Constantinesco also organized an international conference on “The Labour of Pain in the Long Nineteenth Century.” Speakers included historians, historians of medicine, as well as literary scholars, and the event highlighted the international dimension of the Fellow’s project, as well as the excellence of EU-funded research.
Thomas Constantinesco’s focus on representations of pain in nineteenth-century American literature has shed a crucial light on literary texts as a site to advance critical thinking in the broader field of health humanities. His research demonstrated that, contrary to a long-standing assumption in the field of pain studies, pain is not only destructive but also generative. Pain generates language, identities and collectivities and literature provides an important archive to probe the labours of pain. Thomas Constantinesco’s work has shown how literary formalism is also linked to issues of individual and social formation, thus evidencing the value of literature and literary studies for thinking about the complex ways in which pain shapes subjectivities and communities.
The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. Ernest Board, c. 1912. Wellcome Collection