Literature as Clinic: Patient Narratives of the Eighteenth Century

Due Date: 12-01-2023

As narrative medicine and medical humanities grow into their own specialty fields while expanding outside the traditional frameworks of academia, eighteenth-century studies assumes even greater significance within the development of both the literary canon and the medical field. What can the omnipresence of illness within the body of eighteenth-century literature teach medical humanities? What does the reliance on narrative to diagnose and cure in the eighteenth century teach us about reading literature? “What truly counted,” medical historian Roy Porter argues, “was the patient’s words and how the physician decoded them” and medicine “use[d] skills best called humanistic and hermeneutic.” Do these shared concerns render all eighteenth-century literature a potential site of the clinic?

Nearly all the period’s canonical writers were famously patients: Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Laurence Sterne, and William Cowper, among others. What happens if we read these writers as patients, these works as patient narratives? Literary scholars such as Rita Charon are asking doctors in clinical settings to listen to their patients with the tools of literary analysis, namely close reading. We, in turn, must listen for the patient narratives embedded in our texts and find the medical encounters in literature.

We invite papers on eighteenth-century (1660–1820) writers struggling with chronic illness, writers confronting incurable disease, and writers living in the afterlife of illness. Other categories of essays include connections between the literary and medical marketplace; the development of epistolarity and “taking the history”; critiques of empathy from Adam Smith to Saidiya Hartman; Indigenous and Black healers’ narrative practices; links between medical inequity and colonialism; talking cures for trauma and its recovery; the medicalization of disability; medical reification of gender difference; pregnancy narratives and midwives; local and global contagion and its metaphors; among other examples of clinical encounter on page and in practice, with primary focus on Europe and the Atlantic world.

We welcome preliminary proposals on these or related topics. Please send abstracts of approximately 250 words to both editors, Cynthia Richards ( and Lilith Todd ( by email by 1 December 2023.