Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan Edmunds


Contagion, Epidemic, Immunity, Metaphor, Modernism, Novel

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Arts and Humanities | Ethnic Studies | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies


Metaphors of epidemic and contagion have played a powerful role in shaping American identity by using disease to symbolically mark out certain raced and classed populations as outsiders to the social body. In the twentieth century, epidemics and epidemiological reading came to dominate not only the fields of science, but also literary and cultural production and its critical lenses. “Novel Epidemics” examines how American novelists William Faulkner, Ishmael Reed, and Helena María Viramontes used epidemic as a fictional framework for examining and critiquing the ways that the US social body was imagined, constructed, and reinforced through an epidemiological lens. Using stylistic and formal experimentation to re-draw the boundaries of the novel and the social body it depicts, the novels examined here unveil the centrality of cultural production to the biopolitics of epidemic and, in doing so, reimagine contagion, novelty, and virality as potential vehicles for cultural change. I argue that these authors use depictions of epidemic to push back against the repression of “contagious others,” and instead mark out a system of immunopolitics in which culture becomes a medium for the management, quarantine, and assimilation of radical cultural movements which threaten to disrupt white, capitalist, US hegemony. This work draws together a spectrum of aesthetic, scientific, and philosophical approaches including critical race theory, biopolitics, literary studies, epidemiology, and virology in order to describe and analyze a new field of literary-cultural engagement with epidemic that reveals how epidemiology changed the way we read and think about US cultural and national identity.


Open Access

Available for download on Sunday, September 15, 2024