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Southern Frontier HumorNew Approaches$
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Ed Piacentino

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781617037689

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617037689.001.0001

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From Swamp Doctor to Conjure Woman

From Swamp Doctor to Conjure Woman

Exploring “Science” and Race in Nineteenth-Century America

(p.86) From Swamp Doctor to Conjure Woman
Southern Frontier Humor

Bruce Blansett

University Press of Mississippi

This chapter examines important intersections between Henry Clay Lewis’s Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor and Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales. It highlights the similar themes and stylistic and narrative strategies of the two works, as well as their subversive attitudes toward scientific and medical contexts of the time—the latter often colored by blatant racist ideologies. It argues that Lewis and Chesnutt, sharing common concerns and humorous strategies, both exploited professional medicine’s relationship with folk medicine in order to defamiliarize and denaturalize the often dubious authority of professional medical discourse. They also questioned the treatments—many of which cruelly and unnecessarily victimized black patients—to which slaves were subjected. In particular, it considers how Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales denaturalizes the unexamined scientific theories of race that supported slavery arguments during the Civil War and justified the severe racism in America after Reconstruction. Chesnutt, in debunking the science of medicine, equates the discipline with conjuring by appropriating the southern frontier humor and language associated with Lewis.

Keywords:   science, Henry Clay Lewis, Charles W. Chesnutt, medicine, slaves, race, slavery, racism, conjuring, southern frontier humor

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