Essayist, poet, scholar and disability activist Ralph Savarese recently gave a talk, titled “Reading ‘Bartleby,’ Reading Billy Budd: Herman Melville and the Medical Humanities,” as the second speaker in the “Vital Connections: Health Care and the Humanities” lecture series.
The next speaker in this series will be University of Rochester Medical College Professor Stephanie Brown Clark, who will offer a talk titled “Learning to Look at Patients and Paintings: What the visual arts can teach healthcare professionals” on Tuesday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Stern 103.
“In medical humanities and disability studies, Savarese’s scholarship is groundbreaking in its interdisciplinary connections among the sciences, particularly neurology and the autism spectrum, and literature-both prose and poetry,” says Visiting Professor of English Sarah Berry. “In one strand of his research, he investigates the neurological underpinnings of literature and poetry in a range of contexts while also considering poetry as both an art form and a science.”
During the course of his talk, Savarese drew connections between science and culture, noting that science is inevitably a biocultural affair by its very nature.
“Science takes place within cultural contexts, shaping the experience of illness and the way medicine is practiced,” explains Savarese. “An interdisciplinary field, the medical humanities explore how very social actors – patients, doctors, scientists, politicians and writers – produce the concept of health.”
Using the work of American novelist Herman Melville, who is most well-known for his book “Moby Dick,” Savarese looks at Melville’s works to show that literature is a socio-scientific affair, taking up all manner of prevailing theories about illness and health.
“Melville was particularly interested in the medical field and, work after work, would engage with the medical debates of his time,” explains Savarese, noting that in his 1850 novel, “White-Jacket,” he spoofs the rise of homeopathic medicine. “Melville’s attitude toward the medical profession was quite negative and he was as critical of what we now call ‘conventional’ medicine as he was of alternative medicine.”
In addition to using Melville’s work to not only see how the medical field is approached to help illuminate the work of this important 19th century American writer, but also to reflect critically on how the culture cares for its sick, thereby showcasing this connection between the sciences and the humanities.
An associate professor of English at Grinnell College in Iowa, Savarese is the recipient of a National Humanities Writ Large Fellowship, next year he will be at Duke University’s Institute of Brain Science, where he will complete his book on neuropoetics and work with psychiatrists and residents at the intersections of language, literature, and neurology.
He is the author of “Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption,” which Newsweek called a “real life love story and a passionate manifesto for the rights of people with neurological disabilities.” It won the Independent Publishers Gold Medal in the category of health/medicine/nutrition and was featured on CNN, ABC’s Nightly News, NPR, GQ, Disabilities Studies Quarterly, and numerous other journals and websites.
He is the co-editor of “Papa PhD: Men in the Academy Write about Fatherhood;” a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly titled “Autism and the Concept of Neurodiversity;” and a special issue of Seneca Review titled “The Lyrical Body.” His long article “Nervous Wrecks and Ginger-nuts: Bartleby at a Standstill” won the Herman Melville Society’s Hennig Cohen Prize for an “outstanding contribution to Melville Scholarship.” His recent essay “The Lobes of Autobiography: Poetry & Autism” was one of two finalists for the Donald Murray Prize for the best published essay on writing from the National Council for the Teachers of English, and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
His criticism has appeared, or will soon appear, in Disability Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability, Prose Studies, and more. His creative nonfiction poems, reviews, and translations have been published widely.
He is currently working on a number of projects: a scholarly monograph titled “Melville’s Minds,” “A Dispute with Nouns: Autism, Poetry, and the Sensing Body,” “Republican Fathers,” and “The World Is a Fine Place.”
This lecture series is sponsored by a grant from the Provost and Deans Offices. Organized by Associate Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller and Berry, the event was developed to create interdisciplinary programming and curriculum between the Health Professions Minor and the humanities.