Academic journal article American Studies

MIRACULOUS PLAGUES: An Epidemiology of Early American Narrative

Academic journal article American Studies

MIRACULOUS PLAGUES: An Epidemiology of Early American Narrative

Article excerpt

MIRACULOUS PLAGUES: An Epidemiology of Early American Narrative. By Cristobal Silva. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011.

The subtitle of this fascinating book suggests how Cristobal Silva intends to bring together the burgeoning field of medical history and epidemiology with literary criticism to interrogate not only the first century of colonial settlement but the field of New England studies itself. Silva hopes to explore a framework for understanding the mechanics of colonial epidemics as well as the narrative and theological practices that arose from them. "An epidemiology of narrative," Silva argues, "describes an analytical framework that charts the genealogy of New England's literary history according to the temporal and geographical specificity of epidemical outbreaks-a specificity that relates to shifting migration patterns and immunological conditions over time as much as it does to factionalism, political intrigue, and religious orthodoxy" (13). Turning our attention from the New England "Mind," in other words, Silva is fascinated by the specificity of New England bodies and by the rhetorical practices that were formed by people and communities in sickness and in health during the first century of colonial settlement.

Silva offers perceptive and sometimes counterintuitive readings of key episodes and texts that in outlines will largely be familiar to scholars of early New England but which will seem less familiar after engaging this book, as Silva's epidemiological analysis allows for new questions and new lines of inquiry. He begins with the 1616-1619 epidemics that killed up to 95 percent of the indigenous inhabitants of New England before the first wave of Puritan settlement. "Epidemics certainly facilitated settlement in New England," Silva remarks, but they also provided settlers with justification narratives, "with the language through which to understand and legitimate their migration" and colonization (26). Next, he turns to the epidemiological rhetoric that informed the Antinomian Crisis of the 1630s and the debates about separatism and congregationalism among the settlers themselves, demonstrating how Antinomianism was pathologized as a "figural epidemic" by its opponents (76). …

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