Kirsten Twelbeck, Beyond the Civil War Hospital: The Rhetoric of Healing and Democratization in Northern Reconstruction Writing, 1861-1882 (Bielefeld: transcript, 2018), 438 pp.
Beyond the Civil War Hospital investigates Northern Reconstruction texts by writers who were involved in the medical profession, often as nurses or doctors, during the American Civil War. Twelbeck studies various (para-)literary genres such as diaries, letters, poetry, and novels in order to unearth the relationship between the rhetoric of healing and political discussions about the postbellum Republic, with a special interest in the role of women and former slaves. Her study claims that the medical profession was particularly suited to ponder social, cultural, and political questions about the nation after the Civil War. One of the common rhetorical devices used in the period covered in this study is that the Civil War marks a metaphorical wound on the body of the nation that needed healing and recovery after the fighting came to an end in 1865.
Twelbeck chooses seven Northern writers (male and female) and organizes her study roughly chronologically in order to show the ideological and aesthetic differences among the authors’ conceptions of the future state of the nation, its so-called Second Founding. It was especially the nuanced discussions in Northern reconstruction writings about the racial and gendered future of the USA that prompted the author to study “only” texts from the North. While this choice of a broad textual basis is commendable and understandable, it would have been fascinating to learn more about Southern writers who employed medically informed rhetoric to voice their positions on Reconstruction. This may be due to a lack of adequate sources or, rather, a persistent appearance of the “Civil War hospital as the real and symbolic site of American suffering during an era fraught with moral concerns” (28) in Northern writings, where the debate was vigorous and highly influential on the political and social course of the nation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The study’s conceptualization of the interplay between medicine and politics (healing and democracy) rests primarily on Mary Pratt’s notion of the contact zone (applied to the Civil War hospital) and Norbert Elias’s notion of human figuration (applied to Civil War hospital narratives). Against this theoretical background, chapters 3-8 undertake a roughly chronological analysis of a broad array of illness narratives. The first text under scrutiny is Esther Hill Hawks’s unpublished diary, which attempts to come to terms with the social and political issues of the Civil War era from the perspective of a White female doctor who also treated patients of Color. Twelbeck convincingly reads the diary against the literary conventions of the time, especially with regard to female writing, and highlights the author’s indecisive positioning between opting for radical racial equality and maintaining the conviction of White superiority. In addition, Hawks’s texts set the stage for postbellum illness narratives that highlight the role of women in medicine during the Civil War, thus aiming to further include women in the social and political discussions about the future of the United States.
Chapter 4 concentrates on letters written by John Bennitt, who served as a surgeon in the Union Army. Rather than offering insights into medical practices, Twelbeck is primarily concerned with how this body of texts figures as an exemplary voice that takes part in the evolving discussion about the nation’s Second Founding. The letters constitute a useful corpus for textual analysis, because they illustrate, among other things, how the Civil War (hospital) functioned as a complexly layered gendered space (and thus as a contact zone), in which roles of men and women could be re-negotiated and thereby serve as a model for the public discussion about the path of the nation, especially its “spiritual rebirth” (101) during and beyond Reconstruction. For Bennitt, who comes across as a nineteenth-century version of the Puritan minister-physician, this meant primarily a strong recourse to Christian social values, which he considered to be waning or at least changing for the worse due to the Civil War.
Chapter 5 focuses on the fictional texts by two female authors: Sarah Emma Edmonds and Louisa May Alcott. Again, Twelbeck centers her analysis on the idea that the wartime hospital offered women the chance to rehearse moral debates about larger social inclusion and, particularly, to imagine societal roles for women outside of the domain of the domestic. Literature, and particularly the writings by Edmonds and Alcott, played an important role in this process, because it aided in the dissemination and discussion of new ideas about gender (and race) roles in U.S. society, an “imaginary test space for a less patriarchal and more democratic society to come” (136). It is especially the aspect of racial and gendered cross-dressing in Edmonds’s novel Nurse and Spy (1864) which makes this particular text more radical and progressive with regard to social and political inclusivity than Alcott’s repeated grappling with re-conceptualizing gender and race roles, especially in Hospital Sketches (1863) and “The Brothers / My Contraband” (1863).
The following chapter centers on Henry Ward Beecher’s novel Norwood (1867), another text that uses “healing” as a metaphor for the societal re-conciliation phase after the Civil War. Beecher was well-known as an abolitionist and orator before and during the war, and it hence comes as no surprise that his novel advocates for complete equal rights for former slaves, a position that authors such as Alcott or Walt Whitman refused to embrace wholeheartedly. Moreover, Norwood engages in contemporary discussions about the role of science and religion, imagining a doctor rather than a minister who fictionally leads the characters, and by extension, the nation, into a better, more egalitarian future, while at the same time presenting a case against the full participation of women in the public realm.
Chapter 7 investigates Whitman’s work, which was in part driven by his experiences as a male Civil War nurse. Again, Twelbeck makes a strong and convincing claim for how medical practices and discourses serve as paradigms for public discussions about societal changes after the war, especially putting “democracy” front-and-center of the ongoing debates about the future direction of the United States. In her analysis of selected Whitman texts, Twelbeck argues that his “imaginary nation-building” (291) centered around an evolving position on the consequences of the equality of genders and races under the auspices of a country whose raison d’être lies in perfecting the human condition in a self-proclaimed democratic society.
The final analytical chapter focuses on Mary Bradley Lane’s understudied serialized novel Mizora: A Prophecy (1890). Mainly dealing with the future of race relations after Emancipation, this text also uses a broad array of medical metaphors to imagine a better, more advanced society, mostly made up of blondes: “Mizora in fact ends where Progressivism started, complete with fantasies of genocide, social hygiene, and a new army of women who care” (346). Twelbeck writes and illustrates the cultural work that this particular literary text performs by showing how the discourses of social Darwinism and scientific racism feed into how the novel envisions the future of the “healed” nation marked by population control and restricted immigration.
Overall, Twelbeck’s readings are consistently stellar. Every chapter is meticulously researched, and the author’s respective medical text is situated in larger cultural contexts and then scrutinized via an extensive textual analysis. One of the many interesting insights that the present study offers, is how some Reconstruction authors, who had been abolitionists (e. g., Whitman and Alcott), grappled in their postbellum writings with reconciling the ideals of Western democracy with their own prejudices against People of Color and/or women. At the same time, however, at least one central question remains unanswered: what qualifies those working in the medical profession in particular to muse about the socio-political makeup of the new nation? While they were surely influential nodal points in the discourse on Reconstruction and other issues, it is still somewhat unclear why those working in the medical profession, and not politicians or intellectuals (broadly defined), seem to have had a more significant and influential voice in the social and political discussions of the time. In addition, it would have been helpful to also explore Confederate writings on the topic in order to derive at a better impression of the national discussion about “healing” and “democracy” after the Civil War.
Those hoping to find new and extensive information about healing practices and/or medical discourses need to look to other sources, as Twelbeck is using the rhetoric of healing as a springboard to discuss larger societal and political issues and ideas. This focus and approach, though, marks a valuable addition to the fields of Medical Humanities and Reconstruction Studies. Firmly grounded in American Literary Studies and Cultural Studies, Beyond the Civil War Hospital convincingly shows how textual forms, and especially literary experimentations, can function as key sites for negotiating the political and societal future of the United States of America.
Marc Priewe (Universität Stuttgart)