Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences



Committee Chair

Timothy Sweet

Committee Co-Chair

Sari Altschuler

Committee Member

Sari Altschuler

Committee Member

Cari Carpenter

Committee Member

Lowell Duckert

Committee Member

Catherine Gouge


Material Disease: Agency and Illness in Early American Literature argues that diseases shaped bodies of literature. Drawing on new materialism, disability studies, and the medical humanities, this dissertation argues that diseases were material and literary agents that transformed not only individual bodies and lives but also cultures, history, and even literature. In each chapter, I explore how one disease impacted a particular genre or paradigm: syphilis and the natural history, smallpox and the body politic, yellow fever and the novel, dysentery and sensibility, and malaria and narratives of Western expansion. By emphasizing disease’s material and literary agency, by conjoining the study of illness and disability with the study of the environment, this dissertation demonstrates how disease challenges fundamental beliefs about humanity, including sovereignty, autonomy, rationality, and intentionality. Yet this challenge is not entirely negative. Instead, it opens up a critical space for reimagining how humans relate to other humans and nonhumans, to how we experience, treat, and write about one of our most fundamental interactions with the nonhuman world—illness. In the age of the Anthropocene, and the global reckoning of human supremacy, it is absolutely vital that we reimagine and remap the relationship between humans and between humans and nonhumans like disease.