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Department of English Language and Literature


Cynthia Davis

Title: Professor
Department: English Language and Literature
College of Arts and Sciences
Phone: 803-777-4203
Office: HUO 504
Resources: English Language and Literature


PhD in English Literature, Duke University, 1994
B.A., English Literature, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, 1986.


U.S. literature, Civil War to World War II
U.S. Women Writers / Gender Studies
Medicine and literature
Literary History
Popular culture


   American Literary Realism and Naturalism
   • Sentimentalism
   • Literature and Medicine
   • The American Bestseller, Past and Present
   • Controversial Women Writers


    Fulbright US Scholar Research Award, University of Marburg, Germany, 2023-24.
    Fulbright Award, Senior Lectureship, University of Venice, Venice Italy, Spring 2011.
    National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers, 2001-2002.
    Schlesinger Library Research Support Grant, Radcliffe College, 1999-2000.

    College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, 2015-21.
    Provost Humanities Grant, 2015-17.
    Morrison Research Fellowship, English Department, Fall 2016.
    Pipeline to Academic Leadership Fellow, 2014-15.
    SEC Academic Leadership Development Program Fellow, 2013-14.
    Provost Research Award, Arts and Humanities, Fall 2012.
    Josephine Abney Award, Women’s Studies, Summer 2006.
    English Department Research Professor, Spring 2006.
    Carol Jones Carlisle Research Award, Women’s Studies, 2001.
    Mortarboard Society Excellence in Teaching Award, 2000.
    College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Grant, Summer 2000.
    English Department Summer Research Grant, 1999.
    Medical Humanities Course Development Grant, 1998-2000.
    Research and Productive Scholarship Grant, 1998-1999.
    English Department Teacher of the Year, 1995-1996.
    Professional Women on Campus Development Award, 1996.
    Research and Productive Scholarship Grant, 1995-1996.


My book on U.S. literary realism and pain was published by Oxford University Press in January 2022. During the postbellum period, many privileged Americans pursued a painless ideal that entailed denying both the necessity of physical pain and any personal value in exposure to it. Advances in anesthetics and analgesics along with emergent religious sects like Christian Science made pain avoidance seem newly possible. The upper classes found that they could increasingly afford to distance themselves from the suffering they claimed to feel more exquisitely than did their supposedly less refined contemporaries and antecedents. In short, to be civilized increasingly meant to possess the capacity to respond exquisitely to pain but the inclination and the option not to experience it. The U.S. literary realists examined in my study, however, resisted this contemporary aversion to pain without going so far as to join those who celebrated pain for its testosterone-enhancing effects. Invested for numerous reasons in depicting physical suffering, these realists embraced the concept of a heightened sensitivity to pain as an inevitable effect of the civilizing process and suggested to those inclined to shrink from physical suffering that continued exposure to it could potentially enhance civilized refinement. Authors discussed in this study include Alice, Henry, and William James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Charles Chesnutt, and W. E. B. Du Bois.


    Pain and the Aesthetics of US Literary Realism, Oxford University Press, 2021.
    Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography, Stanford University Press, 2010. Selected by Choice as an “Outstanding Academic Title,”2010.
    Bodily and Narrative Forms: The Influence of Medicine on American Literature, 1845-1915, Stanford University Press, 2000.
    Women Writers in the United States: A Timeline of Literary, Cultural and Social History, co-authored with Kathryn West, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Current Editorial Project
    Volume Editor, Edith Wharton: Life Writings (Volume 27), The Complete Works of Edith Wharton. General Editor, Carol Singley. Oxford University Press, 2027.
    Charlotte Perkins Gilman And Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts, co-edited with Denise D. Knight, University of Alabama Press, 2004.
    Approaches to Teaching Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Herland,co-edited with Denise D. Knight, MLA Publications, 2003.

   • "'Alive in Every Fibre': Chopin and Wharton on Pain, Pleasure, and Private Feeling." American Literature, Special Issue on Pain. Eds. Sari Altschuler and Thomas Constantinesco. Forthcoming, 2023.
   • “Mary Putnam Jacobi’s Influential Arguments from Biology.” Invited essay, special issue of Arizona Quarterly on “Women and Medicine,” Winter 2018.
   • “'The Ache of the Actual': Pain and the Aesthetics of US Literary Realism,” American Literature, Spring 2015.
   • "'The World was Home for Me'": Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Sentimental Public Sphere," Arizona Quarterly, Spring 2010.
   • “Contagion as Metaphor,” American Literary History, invited commentary for Special Issue on Contagion and Culture, December 2002.
   • “The Doctor is In: Medical Insight, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Elsie Venner,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts,  2002. 
   • "Margaret Fuller, Body and Soul," American Literature, March 1999.

   "Edith Wharton's 'World of Hidden Beauty.'" American Literature Association, Boston, Massachusetts, May 2023.
   “‘Hester Vaughnism’: Lessons in Believing Women.” Society for the Study of Women Writers, Baltimore, Maryland, November 2021.
   “Beyond Sentimentalism: Recovering Overlooked Approaches to Suffering in U.S. Women’s Fiction,” Society for the Study of American Women Writers, Denver, Colorado, November 2018.
   • “Crossing Paths, Parting Ways: Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Edith Wharton,” Society for the Study of American Women Writers International Conference, Bordeaux, France, June 2017.
   • “’More Sick than Well’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Women’s Health in Nineteenth-Century America,” invited talk for a symposium at The College of Physicians in Philadelphia, April 2016.
   • “'Boot-Strap Lifting’: Reforming Religions in the Progressive Era.” C19, Penn State University, Pennsylvania, March 2016.
   • "'A Hard Mistress': Willa Cather on Mary Baker Eddy," Society for the Study of American Writers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 2015.
   • “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper: Life vs. Art,” invited talk, June 2015, University of Florida, in conjunction with an NIH/NLM exhibit on the “literature of prescription.”
   • “The Stubborn Fraction: Twain, Religion, and Pain.” American Literature Association Symposium on God and the American Writer, San Antonio, Texas, February 2015.
   • “Anesthetic Revelations: Unconscious Consciousness in Blood, James, and Dreiser.” C19, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, March 2014.
   • “’The blind dread of physical pain’: Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep, Realism, and Cultural Critique,” Edith Wharton International Conference, Florence, Italy, June, 2012.
   • Panelist, Roundtable on biography (invited), Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference, Denver, Colorado, November 2012.
   • Panelist, Roundtable on single-author scholarship (invited), Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference, Denver, Colorado, November 2012.
   • “Living Forward, Looking Backward: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Life Writing,” Presidential Theme Session, Modern Language Association, January 2011.
   • Chair and Organizer, “Postbellum Sentimentalism(s)” panel, Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 2009.
   • “Books vs. Babies: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Public Sphere, and Postbellum American Women’s Writing,” keynote address, European Association for American Studies Conference, Poznan, Poland, October 2007.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.