Dr. Erica Fretwell
Junior Fellow (VW-Mellon Fellow)
Januar - September 2017
Erica Fretwell is an Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY. She received her Ph.D. in English from Duke University and her B.A. (hons.) in Anthropology and English from New York University. Her research and teaching focus on nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies, the history of science, affect studies, as well as critical theories and histories of race, gender, and disability. She is currently completing a book project, With Feeling: The Senses and Social Life in Nineteenth-Century America, that brings together the philosophical, scientific, and materialist histories of sense perception to understand how the five senses - taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell - functioned in the era of Jim Crow: at once a regulatory structure that enforced scientific classifications of human difference and an emotional force for altering that structure.
Her work has appeared in American Literary History and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-century Americanists, and she is currently guest editing a special issue of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities entitled “Common Senses and Critical Sensibilities.” Invited chapters are forthcoming in Timelines of American Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press), edited by Christopher Hager and Cody Marrs, as well as The New Whitman (Cambridge University Press), edited by Matt Cohen.
"Stillness Is a Move: Helen Keller and the Kin-aesthetics of Autobiography" American Literary History 25.3 (Fall 2013): 563 - 587
"Emily Dickinson in Domingo" J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1.1 (Spring 2013): 71 - 96.
With Feeling: Sensation and Social Life in Nineteenth-Century America
With Feeling is about the modes of sociality that sensation makes possible. It argues that the senses – taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell – body forth emotional attachments among intimates and strangers. It does so by tracking the transformation of the sensorium from a biological apparatus to a social organism in postbellum America, a period in which new scientific accounts of sensation and major shifts in national consciousness occurred. This materialist history of sensation furnishes distinctive insight into the cultural tensions that organized life in the era of Jim Crow, for the senses were used to justify hierarchical social arrangements while simultaneously materializing egalitarian forms of sociality. Accordingly, this book examines sensation as both a regulatory structure that enforced scientific classifications of race, class, and ability and an emotional force for altering that structure – alterations that, I show, emerged out of eugenicist Francis Galton’s identification of synaesthesia and the commingled sensations consequently tethered to the body.
From cookbooks and photographs to poetry and memoirs, With Feeling draws upon texts that instantiate sensation as a historically specific experience of embodied feeling. Indeed, this literature’s capacity to dwell within the sensuality of feeling gives form to particular sensory encounters as they redoubled and troubled the dominant social arrangements of their moment. My attention to sensation as not only a cultural construct but also a generic form – what Lauren Berlant calls “an aesthetic structure of affective expectation” – approaches the complexity of how the literary makes the sensory legible. With Feeling demonstrates that scenes of intensified embodiment offer a more precise understanding of the sensory body and the emotional attachments that constitute its social life.