This essay traces disability’s entry into the American novel. It argues that disability was largely absent from the first US novels and that it emerged into US fiction only after the War of 1812 (1812-1815). The cultural logic of disability in later periods was largely incompatible with the historical circumstances and the generic conventions of the early national novel. Furthermore, when impaired figures entered American fiction in the late 1810s and 1820s, their bodies were not stigmatized, but rather crippled bodies most often signified a legible and laudable history of patriotism. I conclude by returning to Moby-Dick to demonstrate how this genealogy of disability representation opens up new ways of reading canonical disability-studies texts and of illuminating the cultural shift from impairment to identity. More broadly, this essay urges scholars to carefully historicize discussions of disability in American literary and cultural studies.

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