Peculiar Nature makes a tripartite intervention in the fields of American literary, cultural, environmental, and medical history. It argues, first, that white southerners in the pre-Civil War period imagined their environments as regionally distinct from those of the northern states. Because of contemporary beliefs about the porousness of bodies relative to external environments, white southerners' conception of environmental distinctiveness led to an imagination of bodily distinctiveness. Yet while white southerners saw the environment as the source of their individual and collective bodily difference, they did not extend its influence to the region's enslaved people, whose difference, they argued, stemmed from their separate racial origins. As they sought somehow to reconcile these two contradictory viewpoints about the sources of racial and bodily difference, white southerners underwent a number of scientific and literary contortions in order to justify and uphold the institution of race-based enslavement.
Second, Peculiar Nature aims to make visible the ideological production of "the South" against the everyday experience of "many Souths"—that is, to show how local productions of knowledge about the southern natural world worked alongside (and, sometimes, against) national, ideological productions about southern nature. Finally, this dissertation claims that a south-side view of these attitudes toward environment, bodies, and nationhood changes the way we teach and conduct scholarship about "nature" during the period, uncovering white and black southerners' materialist imaginations of their region's natural resources.
Peculiar Nature's chapters take up in turn climatic theories, plants, mineral waters, and swamplands in order to explain how white southerners' conceptions of their region's "natural" exceptionality eventually strengthened their commitment to an environmentally informed racism, and, thus, to a system of race-based enslavement. This environmentalist commitment enabled them to develop a unified white "southern" identity that preceded (and indeed, fomented) the creation of the Confederacy, elided black bodily difference and presence, and relied upon notions of a bountiful and materially valuable southern nature. Ultimately, in framing southern nationalism in relation to southern environments, Peculiar Nature demonstrates how seemingly benign attitudes toward the natural world metamorphosed into "scientific" justifications for black enslavement and for a nation-state founded upon white superiority.