Book Review: Extraordinary Bodies (Rosemarie Garland Thomson)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

In 1997 I came to Inglis House, a residential wheelchair community in Philadelphia, as its educational coordinator and almost immediately found myself heading up the Inglis House Poetry Workshop. They were a group of writers with multiple physical disabilities. In our weekly meetings, we sought ought the work of other poets with disabilities whose work they could relate to and use as models. There was virtually nothing. Disability literature, as a genre, did not seem to exist. That same year, Rosemarie Garland Thomsonís Extraordinary Bodies appeared paving the first road into the domain that has since become disability literary studies and, in the processes, earning its reputation as a now classic of disability studies literature.

Twenty years later, disability literature is no longer in its embryonic stages. Those who, like the IH Poetry Workshop, are looking for quality poetry by writers with disabilities have much to chose from and an increasing selection of journals to submit their work to. The ground-breaking scholarship that Thomson initiated with Extraordinary Bodies has exploded far beyond anything that she herself must have initially have anticipated. Yet barely a piece of disability literary scholarship is produced that does not recognize this initial work as one of its ancestors. In recognition of that fact, Columbia University Press has put out a twentieth anniversary edition of the book, with a new preface by the author.

The publishers have wisely chosen to leave the original text as it is rather than issue a revision. Given the tremendous blossoming of literary scholarship in the past two decades, any attempt at revision would have detracted from the significance of what Extraordinary Bodies is – a founding document. Instead,in Thomson preface, she reflects upon her original intentions in light of the success of the book and the various paths disability studies has taken since its publication. One of the things that she accomplishes in this preface is the introduction of the rationale for the kind of research that she was pursuing, which – as Thomson points out – was quite new at the time.

The idea that reading is in a mimetic relationship with society is a concept that has been around for a long time, but in the latter half of the twentieth century it re-emerged in a number of guises. Borrowing from schema theory Thomson says,

All people construct interpretive schemata that make their worlds seem knowable and predictable, thus producing perceptual categories that may harden into stereotypes or caricatures when communally shared and culturally inculcated.

When the literature and literary portrayal of people with disabilities – when they are portrayed at all – is overwhelmingly negative, this becomes the material from which the schema of those without firsthand knowledge of disability become constructed. For educators, particularly teachers of the youngest members of society, being conscious of this problem and trying to counteract it with more realistic and complex models is critical. That in itself is the only rationale needed for the work that Thomson embarked upon in this book.

Extraordinary Bodies, however, goes far beyond point out how Heidiís Klara or Shakespeareís Richard III have a negative effects on conceptions of disability. Written primarily for an academic audience, it interrogates images of women in nineteenth century literature often thought to be benign to reveal how they are counterproductive to contemporary societyís drive towards equality for disabled women. Thomson also explores the texts of several African American writers that provide more useful to the needs of disabled women. In all cases, she has chosen novels by women to preclude any objection that she is specifically targeting male authors. Indeed, most of the early scholarly writing about disability by women came out of the feminist movement, so Thomsonís choice of Stow, Davis and Phelps as her case studies were probably more critical then than they might be now.

What is most important about Thomsonís work is not the specific conclusions that she reached, but the model that she provided for future research in the field of disability literature. Thomson herself has moved on to different areas of interest within disability studies and the groundwork that she achieved in this book has given impetus to a new generation of researchers.

In reflecting upon Thomsonís work as a part of a scholarly cannon itself, it is interesting to mentally scroll ahead to think of how this book will be viewed in another 50 years or so. It is no small irony that Uncle Tomís Cabin, which was considered so provocative –even radical – at the time of itís publication that Stowe was referred to as ďthe little lady who started the big war, Ē is one of the books that Thomson takes to task for being a covert reservoir of anti-feminist values. While it is true Thomson recognized that Stoweís motivations were humanitarian ones, the labeling her work as ďbenevolent maternalismĒ carries with it a definite spirit of condescension. One can only wonder if that same attitude will not be visited on Thomson's book in the future, ground-breaking as we now view it. This in no way diminishes the importance of Thomsonís work. Unfortunately, though, less insightful or talented writers in pursuit of their own dreams of publication also delight in retrospectively admonishing writers for not being able to predict political trends fifty or one-hundred years into the future and, that, as they say, is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Anyone seriously interested in disability literature needs to have read Extraordinary Bodies; this is even more emphatically true to those entering research. Nevertheless, as I re-read Thomsonís book I think back to that group of writers back in the Inglis House Poetry workshop twenty years ago and still have a long standing concern. Iíll take a sample passage from Thomsonís discussion of her misgivings about Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Silent Partner.

As a result, the novels incrementally and paradoxically revoke the insistent focus on the problems of female embodiment that they initiate. This progression culminates as Phelps severs the benevolent, ideal feminine self from the perilously corporeal female other in order to celebrate the benevolent woman as indomitable and triumphant, safe in her disembodied, transcendent beauty.

Though they were intelligent people, this passage would have been totally opaque to the people that I worked with and, therefore, to most people with disabilities. It is like a helium balloon released into the empyrean. Where among those would-be scholars are the people who will mediate this passage – and all of the similarly written scholarly books – for the rest of us. I never fault a writer for not achieving what they were not aiming for in the first place. Thomson was not writing for readers like me. But what is sorely needed is something that meets us half-way, call it Extraordinary Bodies for Dummies, if you like. All of the research in the world does no good if it does not reach the people who most deserve to understand it. Iím still waiting for the laymanís gloss. If anyone has written that book, please send it to me; I will gladly review it.

Title: Extraordinary Bodies (20th Anniversary Edition)
Author: Rosemarie Garland Thomson
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication Date: 2017


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the upcoming anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).