Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Louisiana Swamp Doctor's Diagnosis: Romantic Fatality and the Frontier Roots of Realism

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Louisiana Swamp Doctor's Diagnosis: Romantic Fatality and the Frontier Roots of Realism

Article excerpt

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, scientists, social theorists, and artists tended to dichotomize all facets of physical and social life. In his study of nineteenth-century medical practices and social attitudes regarding medicine and practitioners, Martin S. Pernick points out:

   Social iconography divided the world into two separate and distinct
   spheres--Head vs. Heart, Reason vs. Sentiment, World vs.
   Home, Art vs. Nature--all seen as relations of the great division
   between Masculine and Feminine. But although these were two
   antithetical worlds, the existence of each depended on the existence
   of its opposite ... Between romanticism and antiromanticism
   existed a profound dialectic. (119)

Assumptions regarding race and class were also characterized according to this ideological taxonomy, including notions regarding the physical body in terms of sensitivity to pain and illness. Pernick notes that the most respected scientists of the day believed that

   all living things might be arranged in a hierarchy of sensitivity, a
   great chain of feeling. Brute animals, savages, purebred nonwhites,
   the poor and oppressed, the inebriated, and the old, constituted
   the lower orders. The most sensitive included women, the rich,
   civilized, educated, and sophisticated. (157)

As a medical apprentice, student, and practicing physician, Henry Clay Lewis was trained to view the physical and social body in terms of this configuration.

Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, strong challenges to the conventions of sentimentality and cultural romanticism were beginning to appear in scientific and literary journals because many male intellectuals believed that the growing influence of women writers, educators, and, importantly, readers were leading to over-sensitivity and weakening the masculine virtues of the young republic. In her book The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas asserts that during the 1820s, 1830s, and early 1840s, men ruled the political and social domain, but that during the 1840s, 1850s, and early 1860s, women became increasingly important as arbiters of literary and cultural taste (100). Rumblings critiquing cultural and literary romanticism, also associated with an anti-European sentiment, were beginning to appear in periodicals by mid-century. In Facing Facts, David Shi notes that one of the earliest critical acknowledgements of a shift in American literary principles, from the romantic tradition toward realism, occurs in an 1854 article in Putnam's titled "Novels: Their Meaning and Mission." The anonymous author comments on the growing "predilection for the real and the practical," explaining that an emerging literary movement seeks to present "what is true." In this essay, I will demonstrate that Henry Clay Lewis participated actively in this early movement toward realism with his collection of sketches Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor, published in 1850, with several sketches appearing earlier in William T. Porter's sporting paper, Spirit of the Times. Lewis asserts a decidedly anti-romantic stance by creating a work of art in which he rejects the practice of using art to provide a model for idealized life in favor of revealing life as it is for a swamp doctor in the bayous of Louisiana.

The anti-romantic nature of Odd Leaves is not simply an inversion of romanticism by way of mere satire or critique, but a complex study of romantic ideology and the ways in which it affects an individual's epistemology. Lewis illustrates throughout the sketches that the dichotomization of class, race, and gender is misleading and fraught with inaccuracies, and, further, that cultural romanticism leads to discontent with reality, which fosters unrealistic notions and goals. Furthermore, Lewis suggests that cultural romanticism is a form of intoxication that befuddles reality. Indeed, the work might be considered a manifesto for temperance, cautioning against the dangers of excesses such as drink, religion, ambition, competition, love, and refinement. …

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