Q&A Interview with UTP Author Fuson Wang

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The Smallpox Report explores the Romantic-era medical and literary narratives that made vaccination plausible, available, and desirable. Read the full Q&A with author Fuson Wang here:

1.Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?

The book started as a dissertation while I was a PhD student at UCLA. As an undergraduate, I was a double major in mathematics and English, so I knew I wanted my project to have a fundamentally interdisciplinary orientation. It turned out, however, that my focus on British Romantic authors directed me toward medicine rather than mathematics. In the Romantic era, there just weren’t that many accomplished British mathematicians, but there was a compelling story to be told about the advent of modern vaccination and Dr. Edward Jenner’s Inquiry Concerning the Variola Vaccinae (1798). As I was putting the final revisions on the manuscript, the work took on a new and unexpected valence when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The renewed challenges of vaccine refusal, misinformation, and public health conspiracy theories sharpened my focus on how these Romantic-era authors wrote about the scourge of smallpox. It was especially illuminating to see how those Romantic-era illness narratives successfully led to the virus’s eradication whereas our own have only devolved into baseless fear, reckless denialism, and reactionary posturing.

2. What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

A large part of the book’s argument is that we’ve lost the ability to value illness narratives in the serious production of medical knowledge. I argue that the historical success of smallpox vaccination has a lot to do with the era’s pre-disciplinary notions about the human body and the discursive, contested narratives about healthful embodiment. Rather than paranoid and conspiratorial, however, those literary contestations of the past were somehow successful, generative, and enduring. The challenging argument to make here, then, is that our own contemporary failures with the COVID-19 pandemic were not caused by overindulging the fantasies of the Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine crowd but by underappreciating the power and influence of the illness narrative. This was the most challenging aspect of this project. With my argument about Romantic-era vaccination, I had to reintroduce the value of the illness narrative in a moment when those stories about our bodies had gone dangerously rogue. Throughout the book, I had to be extremely careful about avoiding any misunderstandings about endorsing conspiracy theories or giving those voices ideological cover for their irresponsible denialism.

3. Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?

As I mentioned before, The Smallpox Report began as a dissertation in graduate school. The job of a dissertation is to have a good handle on the secondary critical literature around the topic and to cite all the relevant research. After graduation, the research took on a different tenor beyond that citational quality. When I was revising the manuscript into a book, I was fortunate enough to have a year-long research fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino. There, I was able to materialize abstract speculation and theory at one of the finest archives in the history of medicine. What I was especially pleased and surprised to find was an unpublished letter by Dr. Jenner to fellow physician Dr. Clement. In that letter, Jenner expresses dismay at the proliferation of improper vaccination procedures and vows retribution against a Dr. Walker because of his deviance from the Jennerian method. This letter was a great way to track Jenner’s career trajectory from the humble countryside physician of the 1798 Inquiry to the imperious, professionalized public health official of this 1802 letter. What I saw in this was a kind of microhistory of the consolidation of medical authority in the early nineteenth century. Whereas the Jenner of the Inquiry listened earnestly to illness narratives of milkmaids and rustics, the professionalized, authoritative Jenner of 1802 shuts all discursive detours down.

4. What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?

Since I was just getting into book publishing at the time, it was invaluable to have the guidance of a seasoned editor like Mark Thompson to get the manuscript ready for publication. He sent the book to incredible reviewers who were able to point out gaps in and potential misunderstandings of the argument. One of the readers found the argument compelling but mused that a contemporary anti-vaxxer almost certainly wouldn’t be convinced and suggested that I try to make the argument more legible to this audience. This surprising reaction to the manuscript made me think a lot more about the actual audience of the book. I decided that I’m not talking to the irrational anti-vaxxer. What my argument suggests is that the onus of change should not be on them but on us, on how we have valued or devalued the illness narrative. In my view, the current dangerous level of medical denialism is a systemic issue that has been produced and nurtured by clinical and institutional medicine’s gradual shift away from patient-centred care. Instead of dismissing medical denialism as mere noise against the industrial hum of professional medical progress, I suggest that we listen compassionately to its historical rhythms. I know from personal experience that it is difficult to value narratives that are clearly irrational, misinformed, and paranoid, but the Romantics successfully made the case for vaccination not by touting superior logic against conspiratorial dolts but by valuing the strangeness of how we talk about health. Repairing a systemic issue is not about convincing one person who may already be too entrenched, but instead about rethinking the biopolitical conditions that fostered the medical denialism in the first place.

5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Smallpox Report?

Since the book is an interdisciplinary project, there are two main takeaways I’d like to emphasize: a medical one and a literary one. The first is a public health argument about relearning from the Romantic era the value of illness narratives in patient-centred care. I’ve already talked quite a bit about that one in my answers to the previous questions, so I’ll focus here on the second. The chapters are structured around some of the most canonical authors of the nineteenth century: William Wordsworth, Erasmus Darwin, William Blake, Mary Shelley, John Keats, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The interdisciplinary approach that centres illness narratives about inoculation works to defamiliarize these familiar texts, offering unusual and sometimes surprising close readings. Romantic-era literature, contrary to the stereotype, isn’t just about ethereal fairies, apolitical meditations on beauty, and poetic philosophies about transcendence. What I show in the close readings of these six chapters is that even the most abstruse and abstract poetics intersect with concrete, embodied problems that required strange literary detours of the imagination.

Learn more about The Smallpox Report here.


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