Cadaver Poetics: Surgical Medicine and the Reinvention of the Body in the Nineteenth Century
August, Emily Maude
During the nineteenth century, the rise of surgery and the transatlantic institutionalization of medicine contributed to an epistemological redefinition of the human body as an animated corpse. As medical schools restructured their curricula to favor dissection as a necessary component of surgical instruction, human cadavers were incorporated into medical education on an unprecedented scale. The cadaver usurped the living patient as the primary source of scientific knowledge about the body, and the demand for medical cadavers quickly outstripped supply. Illegal practices of corpse acquisition proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic, inciting alarm in the socially vulnerable populations toward whom these practices were targeted. But the corpse’s increasing visibility also made it a useful theoretical tool. Literary writers used its imaginative possibilities to register cultural changes in how the body was understood. Writers often drew on metaphors and vocabularies explicitly or tangentially related to the rise of surgical practice and its conspicuous consumption of corpses. I trace the figure of the animated corpse—and the politics of its deployment—through the four discursive theaters in which traditional conceptions of the body were most visibly interrogated: the fairy tale, the criminal confession narrative, women’s writing, and the surgical textbook. I explore the ideological causes and ethical consequences of reconfiguring the living human body as a cadaver, asking which socially privileged subjects can afford to identify with the corpse, which subjects does such identification further imperil, and what kinds of institutional violence become licensed when bodies and persons are defined through and against the corpse.