Five Questions: Emily Stanback on The Wordsworth-Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability

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Emily Stanback is Associate Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her principal research interests include British Romantic literature; disability studies; memorialisation; pedagogy; and the histories of science and medicine. Her first monograph, The Wordsworth-Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability, which we discuss below, was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2017 as one of the first titles in the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series.

1) How did you first become interested in the intersection of disability studies and Romantic-period writing?

This answer will bring us back decades. At a young age, I found that poets—first Emily Dickinson, but soon many others—spoke to me in language and images and forms that resonated with my own experiences of disability. By centering the slant, a great deal of poetry from the past 250 years can be said to embody what, building on Tobin Siebers, I refer to in my book as disability aesthetics. And seeking disability led me as an undergraduate to Romanticism. Like the modern art Siebers discusses in Disability Aesthetics, Romantic-era poetry is made memorable, powerful, and beautiful by virtue of its non-normative forms (think poetic fragments, metrical irregularities, repetition, experimentation); by the ways that it slows down or speeds up experience, memory, and narration into what Disability Studies might call crip time; and by the kinds of embodied human experiences it centers—including illness and disability, yes, but also other experiences of non-normative embodiment including intoxication, trances, and that most irrational and inarticulable experience, the sublime. And then there are the Romantic-era characters in poetry and fiction who embody mental and physical disability—from Wordsworth’s Johnny Foy and Martha Ray to William Earle’s reimagined Three-Fingered Jack (based on Jack Mansong) to Mary Shelley’s Creature—and the authors whose disabled bodyminds shaped their texts in content and form—from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dorothy Wordsworth to Lord Byron to John Keats to Mary Prince. My view, and I hope my book bears this out, is that Romantic aesthetics are disability aesthetics.

2) The book focuses on ‘aesthetically significant experiences enabled by non-normative states of body and mind, and also the aesthetic dimensions of non-normative bodies and minds, as considered from without.’  To what extent do these two different kinds of representations align in the writers you examine, and to what extent is there a contest regarding meanings between internally- and externally-focused figurations of non-normative bodies and minds?

I tend to think of it less as a contest between internally- and externally-focused figurations of non-normative bodies and minds, and more a contest between the wide and often contradictory range of approaches to disability that coexisted at the time. In 1800, some interpreted the forms of non-normative embodiment we would now call “disabilities” in a primarily religious framework, or according to other categories and concepts that had been predominant for some time. Others, possibly influenced by the rise of scientific medicine and solidifying norms of embodiment, held what closely resemble normative views—in the modern sense of the word. Yet others saw individual disabilities, or disability writ large, as social identities or even as cultural constructions, much as Disability Studies does today. It was also altogether possible for a Romantic-era author to view some disabilities neutrally, others as distinctly advantageous, and yet others as severe deficits or tragic misfortunes. We can identify similar conflicts and contradictions today, even sometimes within disability communities.

Of the authors I discuss in my book, and probably of all of the Romantic-era authors I regularly teach, I think Charles Lamb comes the closest to a comprehensive and self-aware approach to disability. As I describe in the final chapter of my book, disability was central to Lamb’s sense of self and his urban aesthetic. He claimed that he developed his characteristic humor in response to his stammer, and he built a life of mutual care with his sister, Mary, largely in response to the practical demands of her mental illness and periodic institutionalization—experiences he’d also had. Although he suffered, Lamb did not take his experiences of disability as tragedies, but rather came to understand them as inextricable from his identity. In an 1822 letter to Wordsworth, Lamb described how “Common natures do not suffice me.” He was, he wrote, “made up of queer points” and wanted “so many answering needles.” In his letters, poetry, and essays, Lamb explored several topics related to the cultural construction of disability—for example, physiognomy and the ways that we interpret non-normative bodyminds, the scientific classification of humans, the lived experience of stigma, and the performativity of disability. And through what I call Lamb’s “cripped metropolitan aesthetics,” his writing explicitly centered disabled people and embraced what he called “The deformities of London” itself. In his Elia essays, Lamb focused on figures like Samuel Horsey, the amputee beggar who appears on the cover to my book, who Lamb called a “grand fragment; as good as an Elgin marble.” Lamb’s comparison of Horsey to the Parthenon marbles suggest how Lamb’s cripped aesthetics are in fact characteristic of his era. Lamb just connected the dots between actual disability and disability aesthetics more explicitly than most did.

3) What would you identify as the most major shifts in cultural attitudes to disability during the period that the book covers?

I’ve already mentioned that I see the period as one of great openness and contestation, but it is also a singularly transformational moment in the history of medicine. This was the era during which you can trace the rise of normative scientific approaches to the human body, as well as the rise of professional scientific medicine. Eighteenth-century medicine had tended to figure “health” in relative and holistic ways, and there was not yet a general norm of health to which bodies were compared. I still think that there was an operative concept of disability in 1650 and 1750, but not in the modern sense of the word. During the Romantic era, however, the Enlightenment push to classify human bodies dovetailed with the regularization of diagnoses and medical practices, as well as the consolidation of increasingly universal standards of health. With the rise of the norm, you also began to see the emergence of “disability” in a much more recognizably modern form. So while many Romantic-era texts and strains of thought about non-normative bodyminds do not bear a close relationship to what we now think of as “disability,” I demonstrate in my book that many do.

If anything, the deeper I dug the more I was struck by the correspondences between 1800 and today. In Hygëia, for example, Thomas Beddoes includes an extended discussion of the social and emotional consequences of severe scars, despite their functional irrelevance—a passage that maps strikingly onto one from Susan Wendell’s Rejected Body (1996) in which she uses facial scarring as an example of “a disability constructed totally by stigma and cultural meanings.” And while authors of the Romantic era didn’t use the term “disability” in the way we do today, several explored or theorized concepts of disability as a social identity and aesthetic category in similar ways to contemporary disability theorists. In addition to Beddoes and Lamb, Wordsworth wrote powerfully of several dimensions of encountering disability; as an elocutionary scientist, John Thelwall critiqued normative views of his pupils; Coleridge narrated his ill bodymind in extraordinarily nuanced ways; and Tom Wedgwood developed a brilliant and influential metaphysical system around his embodied concepts, as a chronically ill person, of pleasure and pain. And to go beyond my book (although I had initially planned to write a coda along these lines), through the creation of her gigantic, “deformed,” yellow-tinted Creature, Mary Shelley may be said to have crafted one of the most compelling narratives of how disability is socially constructed in the modern world, as well as the profound consequences of such constructions for both individual and community.

4) What led you to focus your work principally on an extended Wordsworth-Coleridge circle (including John Thelwall, Thomas Beddoes, Humphry Davy, Tom Wedgwood and Charles Lamb)?  Are there particular authors from your secondary list (Robert Southey, Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Lamb, Thomas Poole, William Godwin, Erasmus Darwin and Sara Coleridge) on whom you’d have liked to have spent more time, given the space and leisure (or who you’re planning to revisit in future work)?

I chose the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle primarily for methodological reasons. I knew that I wanted to examine disability across a range of literary genres, but also beyond literature and beyond aesthetics and metaphysics. To contextualize Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb’s literary works, I also wanted to look to the scientific and medical discourses and texts that these authors often regarded their own work as directly addressing. This was, after all, an era before disciplines had solidified. Poetic and philosophical figures like Coleridge and Southey participated in medical experimentation at Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution, and scientific figures like Humphry Davy wrote poetry. Moreover, Romantic-era medicine laid claim to authority over the human body, so it felt necessary to explore medical perspectives—what kinds of bodies physicians and anatomists pathologized at the time, and how they did so. I also wondered whether there were those working within medicine who resisted the rise of normative approaches to human embodiment. (There were.) I likewise wanted to look at a diversity of subject positions—how disabled authors depicted their own experiences of disability, as well as how disabled and nondisabled authors depicted others’ disabilities. Because I was trying to cover so much ground, I needed to find a way to make narrative sense of the project, and focusing on a single circle of collaborators and friends struck me as a logical way of doing so.

There was a somewhat unexpected—but from a Disability Studies standpoint, ethically important—side effect of looking at a single circle of authors. I began to discern how the conversations these particular authors had with one another, especially during the 1790s, contributed to the remarkable ways that they were able to conceive of disability. And through tracing intellectual exchange, I was led again and again to Tom Wedgwood, who I have come to regard as the heart of my book. Wedgwood’s friends, collaborators, and acquaintances uniformly described him as an absolutely critical intellectual influence, but because of his chronic illness he never published his metaphysical essays and died young. Subsequent generations of biographers and scholars thought that pity and personal regard had led people like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and William Godwin to exalt Wedgwood’s genius, but I had trouble buying into what increasingly felt like a stock ableist narrative. Alan Barnes and Gavin Budge had both called for a reassessment of Wedgwood’s thought and importance, and by working at the Wedgwood Archive I began to trace for myself what I agreed was Wedgwood’s crucial role in the development of Romantic-era thought. By attending to relationships, in other words, I was able to contribute to what I see as the important recuperation and restoration of Tom Wedgwood’s metaphysics—and with that, disability epistemology—to the center of the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle. Combine that with the thinking and writing of Coleridge and Lamb, both of whom explicitly considered themselves to be ill or disabled subjects, and it becomes clear just how central disability perspectives were to Romanticism.

As to those who didn’t make it into the book… I wish I’d been able to address Dorothy Wordsworth’s unpublished Rydal journals, but I only first read and began to transcribe them at the Wordsworth Trust as I was revising the book. The Rydal journals, I believe, embody disabled possibilities that for Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth remained somewhat aspirational. A bigger regret—because it’s an omission that can’t be chalked up to timing—is that I didn’t include Mary Lamb’s writing in the book. Truth be told, I think a whole book could be written on the Lambs and disability, and I hope in the future to look at the siblings’ collaborative work, both in its content and also in terms of the Lambs’ ethos of care and interdependence, which resonates strongly with contemporary Disability Studies.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have several ongoing projects at the moment, some of which I began years ago and some of which are excitingly new. I’m currently revising an article on Romanticism’s disability poetics that may grow into a larger project, and I’m just now turning my attention back to what I call pathographical epitaphs (epitaphs that mention cause of death and/or medical care—a relatively common occurrence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). I hope to also get back to revising an article on Dorothy Wordsworth’s late style before too long. Following my teaching, in recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways that Romantic-era medicine similarly pathologized, classified, and exploited disabled and non-European people, and how the overlapping and often mutually constitutive discourses of disability and race shaped literature and culture of the era. I’m not sure where these interests will take me, but I hope to at some point write about Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince and William Earle’s Obi; or, the History of Three-Fingered Jack, and possibly other related texts. Along with some new collaborators, I’m working at the moment to relaunch The Gravestone Project, which I co-founded with Polly Atkin nearly a decade ago; as the anniversary of John Keats’s death approaches, I’m looking forward to the next chapter of the Keats Letters Project; and further in the future, I really hope to be able to return to Tom Wedgwood’s manuscripts as there’s so much more in them than I could cover in the book.