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November 7, 2003
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Romanticism and Colonial Disease

Colonial experience was profoundly structured by disease, as expansion brought people into contact with new and deadly maladies. Pathogens were exchanged on a scale far greater than ever before. Native populations were decimated by wave after wave of Old World diseases. In turn, colonists suffered disease and mortality rates much higher than in their home countries. Not only disease, but the idea of disease, and the response to it, deeply affected both colonizers and those colonized.

In Romanticism and Colonial Disease, Alan Bewell focuses on the British response to colonial disease as medical and literary writers, in a period roughly from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, grappled to understand this new world of disease. Bewell finds this literature characterized by increasing anxiety about the global dimensions of disease and the epidemiological cost of empire. Colonialism infiltrated the heart of Romantic literature, affecting not only the Romantics' framing of disease but also their understanding of England's position in the colonial world.

The first major study of the massive impact of colonial disease on British culture during the Romantic period, Romanticism and Colonial Disease charts the emergence of the idea of the colonial world as a pathogenic space in need of a cure, and examines the role of disease in the making and unmaking of national identities.

About the Author

Alan Bewell is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.


"Romanticism and Colonial Disease is an eloquent, powerful and major contribution to a flourishing area of research, a recovery (in the archival rather than the therapeutic sense) of an entire realm of culture: for example the chapters on colonial military disease narratives and John Ritchie's view of Africa. The eloquence of its elegant middle style alone should attract readers. This book will need to be on hand when anyone does work in its fields of study."

- Timothy Morton - Romantic Circles Reviews

"Bewell has rediscovered a vital dimension to our understanding of the Romantic period. No scholar of the period should leave his book unread."

- Neil Vickers - The Wordsworth Circle

"Alan Bewell has written one of the most important and original assessments of Romanticism to have appeared for many a long year. Romanticism and Colonial Disease is new historicism at its best. Packed with detailed and original research, it refocuses the Romantic movement in a completely unexpected way, demanding that we rethink the literature with which we thought we were familiar. But it does more than this, it also changes our understanding of British culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and redefines our understanding of colonialism."

- Tim Fulford - Romanticism on the Net

"Bewell offers romanticists a new orientation rich with exciting possibilities. He opens the way to an understanding of colonialism not as a uni-directional action but, instead, as a dark commonality of dynamically reciprocal interactions within a process of accelerating globalization."

- Karl Kroeber - Keats-Shelley Journal

"Romanticism and Colonial Disease is certainly one of the most significant works of Romantic criticism to appear in recent years. It presents us with a more complex and interesting body of work, and Bewell adds a new dimension to the colonial and historical context of Romantic literature, demonstrating ideas and strategies in Romantic writings that we simply have not hitherto noticed. This is an authoritative and scholarly account of an aspect of colonial history and literature that we will in future have to recognize in our continuing understanding of the period and its writing."

- Peter J. Kitson - Nineteenth Century Literature

"In this extraordinarily important, exhaustively documented book, Alan Bewell for the first time tracks the emergence in Britain between 1780 and 1848 of an understanding of the fundamental conjunction of colonial expansion with epidemic disease, both in the colonies themselves and, more anxiety-provoking, at home in England... After reading Romanticism and Colonial Disease, we will no longer be able to ignore the ways in which disease infected both the bodies of numerous British Romantic writers—Bewell details the actual diseases endured by Coleridge, Keats, Percy Shelley, Thomas Medwin, Matthew Lewis, and a host of other writers during the period—and, more significantly, the cultural imagination of the Romantic period."

- Anne K. Mellor - Configurations

"Bewell's book is an example of the best of interdisciplinary scholarship, a treatise on the history of medicine, medical geography, English literature, and colonial diseases. I recommend it for a wide readership, and plan on using it in my own graduate seminars. As evidenced most in the final pages, Bewell's book should be applauded for its ultimately political statement on the profoundly social causes of disease in the nineteenth century as well as today."

- Susan Craddock - Historical Geography

"Romanticism and Colonial Disease is a superb book and indispensable to anyone seeking to understand either Romanticism or the medical aspects of colonial expansion."

- Mark Harrison - Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Bewell's great achievement is to have shown us just how heavily colonial disease weighted upon the social conditions and the literary production of romantic period Britain. In accomplishing that monumental task he has set a new standard of excellence for the study of romanticism in the context of colonialism."

- Steven Goldsmith - Studies in Romanticism


"There are quite simply no existing books on the subject of Romantic literature, imperialism, and disease. Future studies on this period, whether literary, medical, linguistic, cultural, political, psychological, or economic will have to reckon with the intellectual range of this book."

- Hermione de Almeida, University of Tulsa

"Romanticism and Colonial Disease is a work that speaks directly to many current areas of scholarly debate—in British and imperial history, in the history of medicine, in literary and post-colonial studies. It should inspire a critical reconsideration as much of the relationship between literary imagination and historical experience as between disease and empire."

- David Arnold, University of London

"A strikingly original and exhaustively-documented study of British romanticism in relation to the global epidemiological crisis prompted by European imperialism. Alan Bewell's book represents a breakthrough in understanding the nexus connecting literature, colonialism, and medicine in romantic culture."

- Nigel Leask, Cambridge University

"This is an important and an exciting contribution to the growing literature on colonialism and medicine."

- Social History of Medicine
Johns Hopkins University Press
Medicine and Culture
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9780801877346 : romanticism-and-colonial-disease-bewell
Paperback / softback
356 Pages
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