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Diseased Bodies and Sentimental Wounds: Richard Allen’s & Absalom Jones’s A Narrative of the Yel

Originally posted on my WordPress blog.

Philip Gould, in his article “Race, Commerce, and the Literature of the Yellow Fever in Early National Philadelphia,” analyzes the intertwining of sentiment and the capitalist market in texts about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic. He argues that Allen and Jones utilize the power of sympathy to claim their status as American citizens and meet “the challenge to established hierarchy through an African-American appropriation of the power of sympathy. […] The Narrative fulfills this argument by offering dual litanies of white selfishness and black benevolence, a structural design that enhances the claims for African-American citizenship” (175). Gould focuses on how Allen’s and Jones’s presentation of sentimental selflessness is predicated on economic self-interest, arguing that “the sentimental claim to citizenship (through selfless labor) is paradoxically premised on the self-interest premising economic debt. Indeed, debt produces such a claim” (176). In addition to this claim that debt produces a claim to citizenship, Allen’s and Jones’s Narrative also employs sentimentality (particularly the concept of sentimental wounding) as a way to claim citizenship. Allen and Jones utilize the horror of the diseased body and the pain of familial separation to generate sympathy from readers and reinforce African Americans inclusion as citizens in American society.

Throughout a Narrative, Allen and Jones emphasize the horrific effects the yellow fever has on the human body. The sick are so “loathsome” that even “nature shuddered at the thoughts of the infection” (8). Moreover, people’s indifference to diseased bodies is as, if not more, repulsive then the sick people themselves. In one passage reporting the conditions at a hospital, Allen and Jones remark: “The dying and the dead were indiscriminately mingled together. The ordure and other evacuations of the sick, were allowed to remain in the most offensive state imaginable. Not the smallest appearance of order or regularity existed. It was in fact a great human slaughter house, where numerous victims were immolated at the altar of intemperance” (9). Scenes like this provide a field for Allen and Jones to exhibit their sympathy for this outrageous treatment.

It also allows them to attest to the ability of other African Americans to feel a sense of horror and sympathy for the diseased body. When discussing the hardships the nurses had to bear when taking care of sick patients, they explain that “the patient raging and frightful to behold; it has frequently required two persons, to hold them from running away, others have made attempts to jump out of a window, in many chambers they were nailed down, and the door was kept locked, to prevent them from running away, or breaking their necks, others lay vomiting blood, and screaming enough to chill them with horror” (14). In this passage and several others in the Narrative, Allen and Jones demonstrate that they, as well as other African Americans, feel the horrors of the illness the same as their readers, and are apparently more feeling than many of the white individuals they write about.

Along with holding up the diseased body as a site of mutual horror, Allen and Jones also utilize the pain of familial separation as a source of sympathy that reinforces their status as feeling members of the American republic. In her book The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature, Marianne Noble argues:

In sentimentalism, readers ‘enter, as it were, into another person,’ not simply by imaginatively observing others’ suffering, in particular the painful interpersonal separations that to some degree or other are part of their own past experiences. Sentimentalism does not simply idealize the compassionate observation of another; it offers an intuitive and visceral understanding of the other’s fear and anguish. (65)

We do not just imagine or experience another person’s pain; such identification triggers our memories of our own past experiences, which allows for an embodied, “gut-reaction” understanding of another’s suffering. According to Noble, “sentimentality exploits the pain of that ontological wound; ironically, allusions to loss in this genre function as a unifying mechanism” (66). In the Narrative, this unifying mechanism validates the character and experiences of African American citizens. Scenes of mother and child separation, which exist as the predominant wound in sentimental literature, provide Allen and Jones with what they refer to as “several affecting instances” (18). They describe entering house and finding dead parents and “none but little innocent babes to be seen, whose ignorance led them to think their parent was asleep; on account of their situation, and their little prattle, we have been so wounded and our feelings so hurt, that we almost concluded to withdraw from our undertaking, but seeing others so backward, we still went on” (18). This first scene is then repeated twice more as they note “the distress of the child was so great, that it almost overcame us,” and “their cries and the innocent confusion of the little ones, seemed almost too much to bear” (18). Allen and Jones figure their emotional response to these orphaned children as a wound that threatens to overwhelm them. In fact, this wound seems of even greater concern than the threat that the fever will overwhelm and infect their bodies.

Furthermore, this threat is something that readers can feel and respond to as well; it facilitates a sense of community and connectedness in the face of these tragic scenes of mother-child separation as a result of the epidemic. More importantly, it places African Americans within the bounds of this sympathetic community, not outside of it (which was what was partly implied in Carey’s writings to which Allen and Jones were responding). Such a framing of the emotional and sympathetic actions of African Americans forms an implicit argument against slavery, which becomes explicit in the addendums included at the end of the Narrative. It is interesting to see how the rhetoric and tropes of sentimental literature, which would become so prominent in nineteenth-century anti-slavery texts, are put to such effective use in Allen’s and Jones’s Narrative, and filtered through the experience of diseased bodies.

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