UM English Department has started selecting a professor of the month to highlight the intricate and exciting research being conducted every day in Bondurant Hall. October’s professor is Dr. Cristin Ellis, PhD Johns Hopkins University. Here, she tells us about her current writings and musings in Oxford.
This is my sixth year teaching at the University of Mississippi. I’m originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I moved to Oxford from Baltimore after finishing my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. I specialize in American literature from the first half of the nineteenth century, and I also teach courses in environmental and film studies. When I’m not working, two of my favorite things to do around Oxford are live music and trail running with my two dogs, one of whom we rescued here in Oxford.
My research focuses on how nineteenth-century science reshaped cultural and literary perceptions of what it means to be human. My book, Antebellum Posthuman: Race and Materiality at Midcentury, examines how the rise of biological science—which was just beginning to become professionalized in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century—changed the course of the debate over slavery. Antislavery advocates argued that slavery was antithetical to America’s founding commitment to human equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” By contrast, in the 1840s and 1850s slavery’s defenders increasingly began to invoke science to justify slavery, arguing that the human race is unevenly evolved, and that the white race is innately more advanced than all others. Some even argued that, far from being equal, humanity may in fact be several distinct species.
At its heart, this debate framed two different definitions of humanity: for the universalists, physical differences among humans do not detract from humanity’s fundamental equality because the essence of human being inheres not in its body but in its rational mind or soul. By contrast, science defines humanity by its body, and in this era scientific racists suggested that therefore physical differences indicate a more basic moral difference among humans. In my book, I look at how three important authors from this period—Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman—responded to the rise of biological science by adopting its embodied definition of “the human” but rejecting racial science’s conclusion that the human diversity can be hierarchically arranged into “more” and “less” human races. Instead, in their writings of the 1850s these authors develop what I describe as a new “antislavery materialism.”
Thanks for all your hard work, Dr. Ellis.