The Perfecting of Nature

Reforming Bodies in Antebellum Literature

By Josh Doty

180 pp., 6.125 x 9.25

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5961-9
    Published: November 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5960-2
    Published: November 2020
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5962-6
    Published: October 2020
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5954-9
    Published: October 2020

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The nineteenth century saw a marked change in how Americans viewed and understood the human form. These new ways of understanding the body reflect how Americans were beginning to see the body’s constituent parts as interconnected. From the transcendentalists’ idealized concept of self to the rise of Darwinian theory after the Civil War, the era and its writers redefined the human body as both deeply reactive and malleable. Josh Doty explores antebellum American conceptions of bioplasticity—the body’s ability to react and change from interior and exterior forces—and argues that literature helped to shape the cultural reception of these ideas. These new ways of thinking about the body’s responsiveness to its surroundings enabled exercise fanatics, cold-water bathers, cookbook authors, and everyday readers to understand the tractable body as a way to reform the United States at the physiological level.

Doty weaves together analysis of religious texts, nutritional guides, and canonical literature to show the fluid relationship among bodies, literature, and culture in nineteenth-century America.

About the Author

Josh Doty is assistant professor of English at St. Mary's University.
For more information about Josh Doty, visit the Author Page.


“There is much to admire in The Perfecting of Nature. Its surveys of popular somatic reform literatures compellingly demonstrate why these deserve our careful attention, and it convincingly demonstrates the subtle yet pervasive reverberations of these theories across the literary texts it examines.” – ALH Online Review

“A valuable summary of mid-nineteenth-century ideas about health and mind-body relations in the decades when concepts of evolution and heredity were being developed. This book is equally important as a history or American studies text as it is for readers of literature.” – The Journal of American History

“With this lively, compelling, and illuminating book, Josh Doty strikes a perfect balance between critical analysis and archival mining. The Perfecting of Nature promises to make an important intervention in work being done at the intersection of literature, the medical humanities, and the history of science.”—Matthew Rebhorn, James Madison University

“Nuanced readings of literary and medical texts make Josh Doty's excavation of bioplasticity in nineteenth-century American literature a pleasure to read, and convincing.  This is an important contribution to literature and medical studies.”—Stephanie Browner, The New School