Academic journal article Arthuriana

The 'Best Breathed' Knights in a Stertorous Age: Tuberculosis and Sidney Lanier's the Boy's King Arthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The 'Best Breathed' Knights in a Stertorous Age: Tuberculosis and Sidney Lanier's the Boy's King Arthur

Article excerpt

Having contracted tuberculosis during the Civil War, Sidney Lanier valorized the 'healthful' qualities of medieval literature in his Reconstruction-era writings. This essay argues that Lanier prescribed his Boy's King Arthur as a cure for disease-ridden bodies both politic and personal. (RW)

While he was detained as a Confederate prisoner-of-war in a Union prison camp during the winter of 1864-1865, the poet, literary scholar, and children's author Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) contracted an ultimately fatal case of tuberculosis. For the rest of his life, he struggled to come to terms with the Civil War's severe effects on his own body even as a theme of the diseased national body politic pervaded his letters and political essays. The economic policies of Reconstruction, the brutality of modern militarism, mass slaughter on the battlefield, and the plague-ridden Union prison camps had a gangrenous effect on Lanier's idealistic view of Southern courtesy, nobility, and gentility.1 In response, he turned to medievalism as a rehabilitative practice through which he could recover his concept of himself as a Southern chivalric gentleman, a persona which he believed was incompatible with a body disabled by tuberculosis. In response to modernity's degenerative effects, Lanier channeled literary medievalism-involving reading, studying, and writing medieval literature-into a physiological medievalism. Popular interest in medievalism in the nineteenth century has long been understood as a desire to resuscitate the perceived social values of the Middle Ages; nostalgic medievalists of the period romanticized the supposed cultural constancy and moral integrity of premodernity. To be sure, Lanier also yearned for the fiction of the medieval past's firmly established religiosity and coherent social order. But, motivated by his own battle with disease, Lanier also longed for the physiological stability of the ideal medieval masculine body uncorrupted by modern warfare and industrialization.2 As Lanier sought treatment for tuberculosis, medievalism became the lens through which he understood his own embodied experiences with disease and disability.

As Susan Sontag has written, tuberculosis 'makes the body transparent.'3 But it was not X-rays that allowed Lanier to see and feel his lungs in a new way; it was his reading of medieval literature. Biographers have hinted that consumption infused his writing with a distressed urgency,4 but to date no scholar has examined the chivalric characterization of Lanier's battle with disease and its relationship to his medievalist writings. Except for a few scattered references in the history of American medievalism, his most famous work, The Boy's King Arthur, which is still in print today, has generally been dismissed by scholars as 'literary hackwork.'5 However, the relationship of the appeal to knightliness in The Boy's King Arthur to his practice of a physiological medievalism differentiates Lanier from other medievalist authors of the era such as Twain, Pyle, and Tennyson. Additionally, Lanier's prescription of medievalism as a cure for a diseased body politic provides an important case study on the failings of post-war healing in the American South.

After the war ended, Lanier quickly equated Reconstruction's effect on the Southern plantation economy with the toll tuberculosis took on his own body. Without a hint of irony, he complained about the carpetbaggers' noxious effects to his fellow Confederate poet, Paul Hamilton Hayne: 'Trade, trade, trade: pah, are we not all sick?'6 In his view, clearly articulated in the essays 'Retrospects and Prospects' (1867) and 'The New South' (1880), the pseudo-feudal wholeness of the Old South had been broken apart by Reconstruction's economic policies. Denouncing carpetbagger industrialism, Lanier writes, 'Hear the clatter of his factories, the clank of his mills, the groaning of his forges, the sputtering and laboring of his water-power!...Are not your ears fatigued with his loud braggadocio, with his braggard pretensions, with his stertorous vaunting of himself and his wares? …

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