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Epidemic Iconographies

Toward a Disease Aesthetics of the Destructive Sublime

Ingrid Gessner

Pages 559 - 582


This article addresses a number of evocative nineteenth-century pictorial representations of yellow fever epidemics, including illustrations from ‘Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper’ and ‘Harper’s Weekly’ between the 1860s and the 1880s as well as photographs taken during and after America’s so-called ‘splendid little war’ in Cuba in 1898. These pictures of diseased and dead bodies, which frequently sensationalized and sentimentalized the epidemics for American readers, constitute complex sites of tension: viewing them generates disgust that might also be accompanied with a morbid delight. These representations of the yellow fever experience embody striking contradictions between the aestheticization of the abject and the moral implications emerging from voyeuristic engagements with disease, death, and suffering that call for close examination. These contradictions provide a point of entry for critical engagement with the politics of aesthetic expression and ensuing ideological conflicts during the period. In order to understand more fully the processes of medical and imperialist power formation in the United States, the article reads these pictures as political instruments that destabilize notions of ethics and aesthetics and conjure up what Miles Orvell, in another context, has described as the ‘destructive sublime.’


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