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“Perfect Scene of Horror”: Cholera, Race, and Pandemic Injustice in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp" (1856)

Davina Höll

Pages 437 - 455



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When cholera—the great pandemic of the nineteenth century—finally struck North America for the first time in 1832, politics, medicine, and society were utterly helpless in the face of the socially and physically disruptive power of the disease. While the sudden appearance, rapid progression, and massive death tolls traumatized individuals as well as entire collectives, cholera’s violent, degrading symptoms crossed the social threshold of disgust, tabooed conversation, and seemed to render artistic representation impossible. However, the disease shaped the century’s literature in manifold ways and left remarkable traces in the fictitious worlds of contemporary North American texts. Cholera plays a crucial role in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp"; the disease has however received little attention in analyses of this classic of U.S. literature. At the interface of literary studies and medical history, this article explores how the traumatic experience of the cholera pandemic is inscribed in Stowe’s text despite an assumed impossibility of narration. It shows that through the merging of the dreads of the pandemic with the radical criticism of the dreads of slavery, cholera becomes narratable, especially in the gothic mode, which allows for the unspeakable to be spoken of, and reveals the familiar pandemic pattern of social and ethnic injustice.

Key Words:cholera; race; pandemic; injustice, Harriet Beecher Stowe

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