Jonathan Lamb

Jonathan Lamb

Fellow: Awarded 2012
Field of Study: English Literature

Competition: US & Canada

Vanderbilt University

Jonathan Lamb started teaching English literature at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.  In 1995 he moved to Princeton, and in 2002 took up the Andrew W. Mellon chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt.  His most recent book is The Things Things Say, a study of the strange energy generated by things when they are emancipated from the state of property.  His current project is a study of scurvy.  Rather than treating it solely as an organic disorder incident to the globalization of trade and empire, he examines its effects on the nerves and temperaments of the victims, who were prone to remarkable fits of passion—anger, nostalgia, delight, fear, voluptuousness, and despair.  Naval history is strewn with the wreckage of these eruptions of feeling—the death of Cook, the stranding of the Wager, the mutiny on the Bounty, the fatal end of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic—all more or less directly the result of scurvy or a cognate nutritional deficit.  Like Thomas Willis (in the 17th century) and Thomas Trotter (in the 18th), Lamb wants to put this enquiry into the morbid excitements of scurvy victims on a scientific footing, paying close attention to the damage done to neuronal activity by low ascorbate levels.  From there he hopes to branch out first of all into an aesthetics of the disease, discussing examples of perceptual distortions and abnormally acute sensations, to see if it is possible to define something like a genre of scorbutic literature, in which Bacon’s New Atlantis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Bernardin St. Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Melville’s Moby-Dick would loom large.  He won a Caird Fellowship to begin his work at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in 2011–2012, and he expects to finish it with his Guggenheim Fellowship (2012–2013).

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