Medical and Literary Discourses of Trauma in the Age of the American Civil War

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


More and more, trauma and modernity emerge as mutually constitutive categories. A whole range of Modernist cultural practices and achievements, no less than modern warfare, technology, and industry, as well as modern social and political developments, have entailed “the shock of the new.”1 As humanities scholars take stock of this fact, they converge on the insight that trauma is not timeless and transcendental but culturally and historically produced. The new histories of traumatic modernity are typically set in Europe: they begin (as Jill Matus explains in this volume) with railway disasters in Victorian Britain, move on to the clinics and consulting rooms of Paris and Vienna, pause in the early welfare states of central Europe, flourish in the mass mortality of the First World War, and then culminate in the horrors of the Holocaust. But this genealogy, which elsewhere I have helped to construct, is incomplete, in part because it leaves out America, which is obviously unacceptable.2 This chapter examines the medical discussion of trauma that was generated by physicians during and after the American Civil War of 1861–65, a militarized setting preceding the 1914–18 war by nearly half a century. Culturally and conceptually, two features mark this early episode: first, while fully formed empirically, American Civil War era writing about traumatic nerve injuries, in comparison with what follows, lacks key components, which makes it at most a kind of pre-discourse of trauma. Second, the interplay of medicine and creative literature, which lies at the center of the present volume, is in full play with this historical story, which has as its most important character a neurologist-novelist whose dual identities informed and fertilized one another.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNeurology and Literature, 1860–1920
EditorsAnne Stiles
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-230-28788-4
ISBN (Print)978-0-230-52094-3
StatePublished - 2007

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture


  • gunshot wound
  • literary discourse
  • modern warfare
  • clinical lecture
  • combat trauma


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