Kept from All Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact in Late Nineteenth-Century Literature by Kari Nixon (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2020), 274 pp., hardback, $95.
Priscilla Wald’s observation that ‘Disease emergence dramatizes the dilemma that inspires the most basic of human narratives: the necessity and danger of human contact’ is one of the most useful and concise summaries of what is at stake in epidemic, endemic, or pandemic outbreaks. Disease emergence invites us to consider, often urgently, what we value and also what we fear in contact with others. It is perhaps not surprising that scholars of literature and disease are often drawn to this particular quotation, which is cited early in Kari Nixon’s study. Arguably the complexities and risks of human contact are the inspiration not just for ‘human narratives’ but also for literary narratives: one way to explain the plots of most novels would be by recounting the human encounters they describe, and the dangers, benefits, and outcomes of those encounters. For Nixon, the ‘unique conceptual space’ (p.5) the Victorians inhabited in the wake of germ theory was a distinct moment in which that necessity and danger were navigated, interrogated, and often subverted.
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