Report // Michael Boyden, “Choleraic Communication in the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Invalidism,” 27 March 2024

Link to original event here.

Invested in the conceptual evolution of the tropics in the cultural imaginary of the nineteenth-century United States, Michael Boyden presented a talk in which he explored how that period understood the interrelations between health, climate and the environment. Amid the simultaneous upsurge of interest in topographical medicine and clinicians’ contemporary attempts to deepen their appreciation of the complex relationship between disease and the locales in which it occurred, the tropics, namely the Caribbean islands, underwent a significant conceptual transformation at this moment in history. According to Boyden, they shook off their reputation as a largely uninhabitable setting and took up the role of health resorts and sanatoriums for white middle-class New England visitors, who were engaging in what can be understood as an early form of health tourism.

Referring to James Clark’s medical treatise titled The Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases (1830), Boyden traced the tentative and gradual reimagining of the tropics and their influence on the patient’s body. Attempting to articulate a nuanced consensus on the environmental conditions of the Caribbean islands, Clark warns of the exciting influence that their excessive climate can have on healthy individuals, even as he insists on the restorative qualities that such conditions can provide for certain invalids, provided they are given adequate moral and material guidance. Boyden likewise consulted a different contemporary treatise—Abiel Abbot’s Letters Written in the Interior of Cuba (1828)—which both shares and adds to Clark’s sentiments. In it, Abbot engages in a topographic exercise of charting “sickly” locales, such as port cities and marshes, and differentiating these from the islands’ more healthful sites, which he believed to have been made such thanks to the frequent passage of wind.

Moreover, the examples selected by Boyden provided deep insights into the preconceived links between morality, disease and the environment. Prior to the widespread awareness of cholera’s arrival in the United States during the second cholera epidemic of 1836-1837, white Americans’ moralised view of geography regarded cholera as a disease endemic to the tropics, the unseemly symptoms of which uniquely affected the members of the uncivilised world. As Boyden pointed out, this view stood in direct opposition to the commonly held beliefs surrounding tuberculosis, which was at once associated with cold environments and civilised states, with spirituality and high morality, which led to the disease’s frequent and extensive aestheticisation during this period. These observations led Boyden to posit that the contemporary climate ideology viewed the relationship between civility and morality on the one hand and disease on the other as inversely proportionate.

This climate ideology both manifests itself and comes up against its limits in Sophia Peabody’s journal entries during her retreat to Western Cuba as well as in the letters of Edward Bliss Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s younger brother. While on the island, Peabody observed a cholera outbreak among the local enslaved population, and, following contemporary medical thought, concluded cholera to be a product of overstimulation, a combined result of poor working conditions and the tropical environment. Boyden demonstrated that Peabody’s implicit view of disease distribution along racial lines is shattered against the reality of the plantation owner’s death by cholera, challenging the disease’s presumed moralised geography and biology.

Edward Emerson’s encounter with cholera was likewise ideologically transformative, Boyden showed. Exhibiting a similar climate ideology that viewed disease, environment, and morality to be mutually interconnected, in his case framing cholera as a divine punishment and retribution, Emerson expressed anxiety that the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean remained unaffected, even as this deadly illness ravaged the free soil of the United States. Boyden reminded that in “Civilization” (1870), Ralph Waldo Emerson also mapped morality and civility onto various geographies, notably when he suggested that “The highest civility has never loved the hot zones,” only to refute this position later in the essay, thus defying the climate ideology that is often mobilised to justify slavery.

Inverting the question of climate ideology in connection with race, the audience joined the speaker in discussing the relationship between white female invalidism and the tropics, remarking on the anxieties surrounding this partial liberation of women’s bodies and thinking through the way their exposure to racialised bodies was used to confirm these women’s white gentility and femininity. Furthermore, Boyden addressed the problematic, yet unfortunately still prevalent discursive trope of anthropomorphising disease as a foreign intruder who disrupts local peace, which still persists to this day, especially in relation to contagious illnesses emerging from tropical countries. He asserted that although the racialised discourse of tropicality has not yet been entirely eradicated, the shift of focus towards crafting policy aimed at future outbreak prevention and international cooperation has ensured that certain places on the globe are no longer viewed as inherently sickly or unhealthy.

Finally, taking the swamp as an example of a site considered to be noxious in the tropics, the audience enquired into the different, even contrasting environmental imaginaries of the swamp, concluding that, in light of the absence of an established medical consensus, authors were at liberty to attribute qualities to various geographies in accordance with their personal aesthetic, cultural and even socio-political investments. Thus, Henry David Thoreau presented swamps as locales possessing health-restoring properties across the body of his work, while Harriet Jacobs commented on their disabling effects as much as on their liberating potentials in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), given their ambivalent role in facilitating her difficult escape from slavery.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Anna Shmatenko (1 juin 2024). Report // Michael Boyden, “Choleraic Communication in the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Invalidism,” 27 March 2024. A19. Consulté le 14 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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A propos Anna Shmatenko

Anna Shmatenko holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Anglophone Studies from Sorbonne Université. She is interested in the representations of liminal states between life and death in the literature of the nineteenth-century United States.

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