After several decades of scholarship that discerned general patterns in literary representations of disability, recent years have seen a turn toward the specific and the particular, with a focused concentration on the ways in which individual texts and literary moments limn bodily difference. In a recent essay about disability in the early American novel, Sari Altschuler made a compelling case for this transition by showing that some of the standard claims about literary representations of disability simply failed to apply to the specific nature of early American fiction, and she consequently called for more particularized, historically grounded analyses of literary depictions of disability. Maria Susanna Cummins’s best-selling sentimental novel, The Lamplighter (1854), offers an important contribution to this endeavor because in numerous ways it starkly diverges from both standard literary treatments of disability and some of the precepts of disability studies. For instance, in its depiction of the maturation and socialization of the street urchin Gertrude Flint, The Lamplighter does not portray the atypical body as unusual or exceptional. Instead, Cummins’s novel includes a wide array of disabled characters, and she depicts impairment as a commonplace and even inevitable occurrence: men and women, adults and children, the working classes and the elite all experience the fragility of the body, and all transition from independence to a state of dependence, reliant on the care of others for their survival. Though scholars have noted that that disability is typically shunted to the margins of literature and even rendered invisible, disability is at the very fore of The Lamplighter, with caregiving an active subject of discussion and concern.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Johns Hopkins University Press
Stokes, C. (2016). "Sinful creature, full of weakness": The theology of disability in Cummin's The lamplighter. Studies in American Fiction, 43(2), 139-159. doi: 10.1353/saf.2016.0007
Studies in American Fiction