Essays

Sicko Doctors: Suffering and Sadism in 19th-Century America

Sicko Doctors: Suffering and Sadism in 19th-Century America

American fiction of the 19th century often featured a ghoulish figure, the cruel doctor, whose unfeeling fascination with bodily suffering readers found both unnerving and entirely plausible. Looking at novels by Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville, Chelsea Davis dissects this curious character. more

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Petrarch's Plague: Love, Death, and Friendship in a Time of Pandemic

Petrarch's Plague: Love, Death, and Friendship in a Time of Pandemic

The Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch lived through the most deadly pandemic in recorded history, the Black Death of the 14th century, which saw up to 200 million die from plague across Eurasia and North Africa. Through the unique record of letters and other writings Petrarch left us, Paula Findlen explores how he chronicled, commemorated, and mourned his many loved ones who succumbed, and what he might be able to teach us today. more

The Skeptical Pilgrim: Melville’s *Clarel*

The Skeptical Pilgrim: Melville’s Clarel

Weighing in at a colossal 18,000 lines, Herman Melville's Clarel (1876), which centres on the theological musings of a group of pilgrims touring the Holy Land, is not for the faint-hearted. Jeff Wheelwright explores the knot of spiritual dilemmas played out in the poem and its roots in Melville's trip to the Middle East two decades earlier. more

“Invisible Little Worms”: Athanasius Kircher’s Study of the Plague

“Invisible Little Worms”: Athanasius Kircher’s Study of the Plague

Living through the devastating Italian plague of 1656, the great polymath Athanasius Kircher turned his ever-enquiring mind to the then mysterious disease, becoming possibly the first to view infected blood through a microscope. While his subsequent theories of spontaneous generation and "universal sperm" were easily debunked, Kircher's investigation can be seen as an important early step to understanding contagion, and perhaps even the very first articulation of germ theory. John Glassie explores. more

Eastern Sports and Western Bodies: The “Indian Club” in the United States

Eastern Sports and Western Bodies: The “Indian Club” in the United States

Although largely forgotten today, exercise by club swinging was all the rage in the 19th century. Daniel Elkind explores the rise of the phenomenon in the US, and how such efforts to keep trim and build muscle were inextricably entwined with the history of colonialism, immigration, and capitalist culture. more

Comic Gold: The Easterner Goes West in Three Early American Comics

Comic Gold: The Easterner Goes West in Three Early American Comics

The California Gold Rush transformed the landscape and population of the United States. It also introduced a new figure into American life and the American imagination — the effete Eastern urbanite who travels to the Wild West in quest of his fortune. Alex Andriesse examines how this figure fares in three mid-nineteenth-century comic books. more

"Theire Soe Admirable Herbe": How the English Found Cannabis

"Theire Soe Admirable Herbe": How the English Found Cannabis

In the 17th century, English travelers, merchants, and physicians were first introduced to cannabis, particularly in the form of bhang, an intoxicating edible which had been getting Indians high for millennia. Benjamin Breen charts the course of the drug from the streets of Machilipatnam to the scientific circles of London. more

When Dorothy Parker Got Fired from *Vanity Fair*

When Dorothy Parker Got Fired from Vanity Fair

Dorothy Parker’s reputation as one of the premier wits of the 20th century rests firmly on the brilliance of her writing, but the image of her as a plucky, fast-talking, independent woman of her times owes more than a little to her seat at the legendary Algonquin Round Table. Jonathan Goldman explores the beginnings of the famed New York group and how Parker's determination to speak her mind — even when it angered men in positions of power — gave her pride of place within it. more

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

In the 21st-century, infographics are everywhere. In the classroom, in the newspaper, in government reports, these concise visual representations of complicated information have changed the way we imagine our world. Susan Schulten explores the pioneering work of Emma Willard (1787–1870), a leading feminist educator whose innovative maps of time laid the groundwork for the charts and graphics of today. more

Of Pears and Kings

Of Pears and Kings

Images have long provided a means of protesting political regimes bent on censoring language. In the 1830s a band of French caricaturists, led by Charles Philipon, weaponized the innocent image of a pear to criticize the corrupt and repressive policies of King Louis-Philippe. Patricia Mainardi investigates the history of this early 19th-century meme. more

The Sound and the Story: Exploring the World of *Paradise Lost*

The Sound and the Story: Exploring the World of Paradise Lost

John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been many things to many people — a Christian epic, a comment on the English Civil War, the epitome of poetic ambiguity — but it is first of all a pleasure to read. Drawing on sources as varied as Wordsworth, Hitchcock, and Conan Doyle, author Philip Pullman considers the sonic beauty and expert storytelling of Milton's masterpiece and the influence it has had on his own work. more

Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts-Hughes and the Eidophone

Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts-Hughes and the Eidophone

Of the various forms the nascent art of sound recording took in the late nineteenth century perhaps none was so aesthetically alluring as that invented by Margaret Watts-Hughes. Rob Mullender-Ross explores the significance of the Welsh singer’s ingenious set of images, which until recently were thought to be lost. more

Loie Fuller and the Serpentine

Loie Fuller and the Serpentine

With her "serpentine dance" — a show of swirling silk and rainbow lights — Loie Fuller became one of the most celebrated dancers of the fin de siècle. Rhonda K. Garelick explores Fuller’s unlikely stardom and how her beguiling art embodied the era's newly blurred boundaries between human and machine. more

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