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The Macksey Journal

Abstract

This paper analyzes Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 novel Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself in the context of contemporary medical and political paradigms. The novel’s eponymous character, a property-owning white man, dies unexpectedly and finds that he has the ability to transfer his spirit into other recently dead bodies. Lee finds himself altered by each body, experiencing the thoughts and feelings and performing the actions typical of each body’s previous occupant. By exploring the nineteenth-century idea of biological sympathy in such a way, the novel interprets thought and behavior as products of biology. When viewed through the lens of the Jackson-era expansion of voting rights, this novel can be read as a condemnation of inclusive democracy on the basis that people of different classes and races are irreconcilably different and cannot form the type of coherent whole necessary for effective government. An understanding of how medicine can be politicized is crucial in a time when disease and crime are rhetorically linked to certain racial and socioeconomic groups by the American leadership.

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