Book Review: The Fever of 1721

BookReviewLogoReview by Kasandra Lambert

In his debut book, The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics (Simon & Shuster, 2016), writer Stephen Coss highlights and emphasizes the interconnectedness between the smallpox outbreak of 1721 and the first independent newspaper in the colonies that would become the United States. To change the course of medicine and potentially lay groundwork for the later American Revolution, In this work of narrative non-fiction, Coss demonstrates how an entire cast of characters, ranging from a minister, to an outcast doctor, to newspaper publishers, to a young Benjamin Franklin were involved in the crisis and controversy of smallpox.

25814342The book describes how minister Cotton Mather, a man with a negative reputation after the Salem Witch Trials, was determined to clear his name by preventing the spread of smallpox using inoculation. Inoculation requires an individual without smallpox to purposely be exposed, hopefully resulting in a milder form of disease. Mather finds an ally in Zabdiel Boylston, a physician who lacked formal education. Coss describes how Bolyston collected the smallpox sample writing, “At first light he had gone to the sickroom, of a smallpox patient approximately twelve days into a regular or ‘distinct’ outbreak of disease — one whose vesicles were fully formed and ripe but still white and fluid, not yellow and malodorous — and using a ‘fine cut sharp toothpick’ instead of a lancet…he sliced open several fully emerged blisters at the side and pressed them so as to express their matter into the end of a quill” (91). Bolyston and Mather have a successful trial, with Bolyston’s son being the first patient, but it is met by mixed reviews from the Boston public. Continue reading “Book Review: The Fever of 1721”

Book Review: There’s a Ghost in This Machine of Air

BookReviewLogoThere are two epigrams to Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s latest collection of poems, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (WordTech, 2015). The first is from twentieth century American poet Lorine Niedecker:

I walked
New Year’s Day

beside the trees
my father now gone planted

evenly following
the road



The second, a line from James Baldwin: “What Americans mean by history is anything they think they can forget.” These epigrams, taken together, might be read as wayfinders — textual signposts to guide our way through the landscape of this moving collection of poems. There’s a Ghost asks us to reflect on the long, and often painful and violent, history of human settlement within the ecology of Sonoma County.

ed8c01c241831fdcf734cdfefd80b03cThe volume is arranged in four sections, each with its own distinct flavor. In “Ghost Fruit: Gravenstein” we learn about the planting of apple orchards, the white settlers determined to bring European methods of agriculture to northern California despite the resistance of the Native communities. In the titular poem, “There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air,” an Irish immigrant pushing forward into Coast Miwok territory with his wheat fields is chased off the stolen land. “He would never return to the rolling green hills, to the dawn chorus, that had hypnotized him because after that night he understood why one might run, arms aflame, to save this,” Dunkle writes (20). Continue reading “Book Review: There’s a Ghost in This Machine of Air”

Book Review: Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy

BookReviewLogoStephanie Shirilan’s first monograph, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy (Ashgate, 2015) is a tremendous example of close-reading technique and elaboration, an excellent model for anyone interested in following a similar path with a text from almost any period.

Begun as a dissertation at Brandeis University, Transformative Powers is a top-notch example of a dissertation raised to to the level of publishable monograph. Shirilan — now Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University — has set herself no small task:

The reader who hopes to profit from [Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy should] approach it sympathetically [sic], that is, with a willingness to be transformed, especially by the pleasures of the experience. The present study is an attempt to demonstrate and elaborate this therapeutic principle by situating it in its rhetorical, physiological, theological contexts. (1)

SolomonThe placement and exploration of The Anatomy in any one of these contexts would be sufficient for a monograph but Shirilan balances them well while making it clear that there is more to be written in each area.

Transformative Powers is divided into four parts, the first an exploration of the author himself, followed by close examination of different aspects of melancholy: hypochondria, “study as cure for…melancholy,” and the usefulness of melancholy as an experience. The author includes a lengthy “Works Cited” bibliography as well as an index and — joy of joys — footnotes!

Shirilan’s writing is dense and rewarding, suggesting many interesting sidelights on early medical writing as well as re-interpretations of Burton’s text. She engages directly and firmly with the pre-existing Burton scholarship, making her view of the text clear without castigating or denigrating her predecessors. Anyone interested in doing close readings as part of their research and writing will find Shirilan’s approach valuable whether or not they have any particular interest in Burton. The reader without an extensive literary theory or rhetoric background may wish to have something like the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms close to hand.