Cognitive normativity and early American fiction

Liza Zitelli Grabowski, Fordham University


This dissertation investigates how four early American fictional texts were engaged with emerging notions of the human mind wrought by medical, scientific, and philosophical discourses. I argue that the four novels examined in this dissertation—Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland: or, The Transformation: An American Tale (1798) and Edgar Huntly, Or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799), Robert Montgomery Bird's Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself (1836), and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851)—each incorporate and then dissect concurrent medicalized notions of the mind, brain, and intelligence. In doing so, these fictions resist the medical models of the mind beginning to emerge in the antebellum era, which would eventually rise to become the dominant model of the mind in the late-nineteenth century. My argument is based on an assumption that confronting fictional representations of cognitive disability can help us interpret early American fictions in new ways, by exploring their role in cultural-historical discourses about who and what should regulate the human mind. I use disability studies as a methodology in order to situate these novels in this cultural discourse. Through this lens, I see these first-person narrative novels as complicating, and to some degree even undermining, emergent ideas of American individualism, as they expose an evolving, but still nascent, hegemony of the normal mind.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Grabowski, Liza Zitelli, "Cognitive normativity and early American fiction" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3632723.