See It Feelingly

Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: Published: October 2018

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Medicine and Health > Medical Humanities, Pedagogy and Higher Education

“We each have Skype accounts and use them to discuss [Moby-Dick] face to face. Once a week, we spread the worded whale out in front of us; we dissect its head, eyes, and bones, careful not to hurt or kill it. The Professor and I are not whale hunters. We are not letting the whale die. We are shaping it, letting it swim through the Web with a new and polished look.”—Tito Mukhopadhyay

Since the 1940s researchers have been repeating claims about autistic people's limited ability to understand language, to partake in imaginative play, and to generate the complex theory of mind necessary to appreciate literature. In See It Feelingly Ralph James Savarese, an English professor whose son is one of the first nonspeaking autistics to graduate from college, challenges this view.

Discussing fictional works over a period of years with readers from across the autism spectrum, Savarese was stunned by the readers' ability to expand his understanding of texts he knew intimately. Their startling insights emerged not only from the way their different bodies and brains lined up with a story but also from their experiences of stigma and exclusion.

For Mukhopadhyay Moby-Dick is an allegory of revenge against autism, the frantic quest for a cure. The white whale represents the autist's baffling, because wordless, immersion in the sensory. Computer programmer and cyberpunk author Dora Raymaker skewers the empathetic failings of the bounty hunters in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Autistics, some studies suggest, offer instruction in embracing the nonhuman. Encountering a short story about a lonely marine biologist in Antarctica, Temple Grandin remembers her past with an uncharacteristic emotional intensity, and she reminds the reader of the myriad ways in which people can relate to fiction. Why must there be a norm?

Mixing memoir with current research in autism and cognitive literary studies, Savarese celebrates how literature springs to life through the contrasting responses of unique individuals, while helping people both on and off the spectrum to engage more richly with the world.


"Impassioned and persuasive. . . . A fresh and absorbing examination of autism." — Kirkus Reviews

"This idealistic argument for the social value of literature and for the diversity of autism as a condition is a rewarding endeavor. . . ." — Publishers Weekly

"This is a powerful book — one that really must be experienced. It is a book that unlocks doors to the many rooms of autism and is likely to surprise the thinking of anyone who steps into them. It carries within it the possibilities of new perspectives on literary work, a greater understanding of autistic neurology, and the chance to meet some remarkable individuals. Read it." — Michael Northen, Wordgathering

"Savarese has produced a masterpiece, simultaneously dense and accessible. His voice moves freely—alternating among lyrical, narrative, and instructive—never losing the flow, never dipping into pedantry, never soaring too far toward the abstract for the reader to follow. Not only is this collection of essays brimming with the most important information and ideas about autism, it is a collaboration of rare beauty." — Maxfield Sparrow, Thinking Person's Guide to Autism

"Savarese shows that literature—with its imagery, inclusivity, and rich detail—is a natural tent pole for a truly neurodiverse community, one populated by autists and neurotypicals alike. . . . The radical possibility this book ultimately offers is that the gap that has for so long existed between nonverbal autists and neurotypicals can be bridged through literature. Literature is, as Whitman said of himself, large, and contains multitudes." — Ittai Orr, Synapsis

"Readers will find this book to be a work of art as Ralph Savarese not only exhibits an understanding of the beauty of teaching but also of the language of the autistic mind. Savarese’s literary creation demystifies the limits of the autistic mind by following five autistic adults through their interpretation of and response to classic literature. . . . Highly recommended. Advanced undergraduates and above; professionals and general readers." — D. Pellegrino, Choice

"Weaving contemporary autism research, cognitive literary studies, and memoir, Savarese disproves prevailing assumptions about the spectrum and invites his readers to consider the abilities of people with disabilities to see the intellectual and sensory world of stories in a nuanced and brilliant light." — Sara McCrea, News @ Wesleyan

"The sense of critical self-reflection is crucial to this enterprise, and is evident throughout the book. Thankfully, this never veers into self-indulgence; as such, [Savarese's] ethnographic work in this area is an exemplar to all those who study ‘others,’ as outsiders with situated knowledge." — Alison Wilde, Disability & Society

"To imagine an autistic rhetoric or an autistic literature is to struggle, audaciously, against a legacy of neurotypical people failing to imagine autism as anything other than lack. That struggle is joined . . . by Ralph [James] Savarese, whose See It Feelingly gives us five extraordinary examples of autistic readers’ responses to literature. It’s like Norman Holland’s classic work of reader-response criticism, 5 Readers Reading . . .  except with autism." — Michael Bérubé, Public Books

"Powered by his enthusiasm for connecting with autistics and for representing the fullness of their humanity, See It Feelingly is that rare book in English studies that succeeds as creative nonfiction: a memoir of teaching non-traditional learners that makes a provocative claim for the primacy of the senses in reading literature." — Dawn Coleman, Leviathan

"Savarese incorporates storytelling, memoir, and poetry into See It Feelingly, which you will read feelingly, from the opening line." — Deborah Jenson, American Literature

"... See It Feelingly overall captivates, impresses, and delights." — Alexander Steele, Studies in the Novel

"... See it Feelingly is a wonderful addition to contemporary work being done in critical autism studies and accessible education." — Jennifer Marchisotto, Disabilities Studies Quarterly

"See It Feelingly is a bold and astonishing act of cross-cultural translation. By immersing the reader in what he beautifully terms 'conjoined neurologies encountering the splendor of a classic book,' Ralph James Savarese dismantles damaging myths about the limits of the autistic mind while penetrating to the heart of how literature changes our lives." — Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

“This deft and impassioned hybrid—part memoir, part disability study, part portraiture, part literary criticism—is a book of revelations about reading, neurodiversity, and American literature. I was repeatedly startled by its slow cascade of correctives and insights—deepened, widened, and enlarged. It is a necessary book.” — Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry

“This compelling, thought-provoking book takes the reader on an intimate journey into the worlds of five autistic adults through their interpretation and response to classic literature. Drawing upon the neuroscience of autism and his own experience as a teacher and a father of an autistic son, Ralph James Savarese offers a powerful and hopeful perspective on autism, disability, and the value of diversity in humankind.” — Geraldine Dawson, Director, Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, Duke University

"Finally, there is someone ‘outside’ my unusual world who cares deeply about autistic experience. Ralph James Savarese has avoided the typical human mistake of comfortable distance and, a true student of literature, immersed himself in the vibrant web of living lyricism where all things, including words, are not only equal, but one. I am so happy to have seen the birth of this work, not as a person on the spectrum, but as a primal poem." — Dawn Prince, author of Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ralph James Savarese is the author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption and coeditor of three collections, including one on the concept of neurodiversity. He has published widely in academic and creative writing journals. In 2012-13 he was a neurohumanities fellow at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences. He teaches at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Stephen Kuusisto  xi
Acknowledgments  xv
Introduction  1
Prologue: River of Words, Raft of Our Conjoined Neurologies  15
1. From a World as Fluid as the Sea  23
2. The Heavens of the Brain  57
3. Andys and Auties  86
4. Finding Her Feet  122
5. Take for Grandin  155
Epilogue  191
Notes  197
Bibliography  247
Index  261
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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