Stephen Rachman

“Wider than the Sky: Romantic Neurology from Emily Dickinson to Oliver Sacks”

Through the case studies in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985), the neurologist Oliver Sacks harkened back to the 19th century in his invocation of the foundations of neurology, in the works of John Hughlings Jackson and A.R. Luria. It also harkened back in his invocation of 19th century concepts of identity, his use of openly religious terminology such as the soul, and in his interest in will, creativity, and the unity of the self. This paper will present a cultural history of this form of “Romantic neurology” where concepts of brain function are in direct conversation with mind, psyche, and soul. My approach will be to examine invocations of the brain and brain function in American romanticism from Dickinson, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, in the moment of literary history where an emergent psychological discourse meets a neurological threshold, a site where “the Brain,” as Dickinson asserted, “is wider than the sky.” I will conclude this exploration of the cultural history of romantic neurology by extending the line through Sacks’ work and to our present concerns about brain/mind and creative functions.