Disability in Modernist Literature (Panel)


Global Anglophone / Comparative Literature

Elise Swinford (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

This panel takes up recent interventions in modernist studies through the critical lens of disability. Evoking E.M. Forster’s appeal to “only connect,” David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder claim that “[t]o represent disability is to engage oneself in an encounter with that which is believed to be off the map of 'recognizable' human experiences….situat[ing] narrative in the powerful position of mediator between two separate worlds” (Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse 5). From Mrs. Dalloway’s Septimus Smith and his struggle to connect with the world around him while battling PTSD, to Jake Barnes’ “emasculating” injury in The Sun Also Rises, the theme of disability and (dis)connection permeates modernist literature.

While the modernist moment calls forth associations with new modes of transportation and communication, speed, transnational engagement, and global connection, disability is often discussed in terms of deficiency and immobility, stagnation and limitation. The early twentieth century marked a shift in attitudes to disability: while turn-of-the-century understandings of cognitive and physical disability were limited, often viewed as the result of moral failure, the modernist moment saw reactions to extensive war trauma, new psychological theories, and the eugenics movement. This panel seeks to explore how modernist writers negotiated disability, either as represented in their work or in how their personal experiences with disability shaped their aesthetics. Papers may address any topic exploring disability in modernist literature, including (but not limited to) gendered spaces, sensation/ perception, disabilities as tropes for deficiency and/or difference, modern war/ trauma, pain, eugenics, the sexed body and ability, and travel and movement.

Combining disability and modernist studies, this panel engages in current discourses on disability in modernist texts. The modernist moment, marked by war trauma, advances in psychology, and eugenics, is a rich area of inquiry for disability theory. Recent disability theory argues that representing disability is an effort to engage with the unknowable, which we also see in the modernist preoccupation with connection. Papers may address representations of disability in modernist texts and/ or how authors negotiated their disabilities.