Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Stefan Schöberlein's "Writing the Brain"

Stefan Schöberlein is Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. He has edited Walt Whitman's New Orleans, co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Walt Whitman, and published literary translations into German. He has served as president of the Digital Americanists Society and is currently a contributing editor of the Walt Whitman Archive.

Schöberlein applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Writing the Brain: Material Minds and Literature, 1800-1880, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book takes us right to an 1889 illustration from a British edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, depicting the famous “Fall at Lyme” episode. An unconscious woman is being attended by two men, while a third man clutches his head in anguish. The image is accompanied by half a paragraph on craniology—which, though, short, would give the reader a decent idea of the gist of the book: materialist (and often determinist) readings of the mind through the organ of the brain, emphasizing transatlantic connections between literature and science.

“Craniology” or “phrenology” is today, of course, rightly understood to be a pseudoscientific fraud and had numerous outspoken critics in its day. Still, it remains one of the earliest theories to describe the brain not as a coherent whole but as a system of somewhat independent brain regions. It is also a theory that quite openly denied free will, replacing it with an organic determinism while also inaugurating the modern self-help craze (especially in the United States). As such, discourse around it was vibrant and left a broad cultural imprint from Charles Dickens in the UK to Walt Whitman in the US.

Yet, while phrenology was the most prominent, early materialist theory of the mind, it was by no means the only one. My other chapters interrogate diverse neuro-materialist concepts and conundrums in tandem with broad literary trends: from hemispheric minds and the Gothic, to Racial Science and Realism, and, finally, to technophile newspaper fiction and brain neurons.

Still, my book hopes to go beyond influence studies and not only trace how science influenced literature but also how literature (and technology) provided structuring metaphors to the scientific discovery, tracing, for instance, a long history of the Neuron Doctrine in periodical fiction and Romantic poetry.

The book features many illustrations, novel readings of canonical texts from both sides of the Atlantic, and a number of textual (re)discoveries.
Visit Stefan Schöberlein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue