Alumni Dissertations

 

Alumni Dissertations

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  • "I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing, Each to Each:" Modernism, Science, Mythology, and Feminist Narratives

    Author:
    Jaime Weida
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Jane Marcus
    Abstract:

    This work presents my vision of modernism, which encompasses science, mythology, and SF (science fiction/speculative fiction). I examine lesser-known writers such as Hope Mirrlees, Nancy Cunard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Katherine Burdekin and argue that they should be inducted into the canon of well-known authors such as T. S. Eliot. As well, I position the feminist narratives of authors such as Hope Mirrlees and H.D. against the patriarchal narratives of authors such as C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot. In the latter portion of this work, I examine how modernism has influenced contemporary literature by Margaret Atwood and Caitlin R. Kiernan and discuss women writers within the SF genre. Finally, I compare Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece The Waves with Caitlin R. Kiernan's contemporary masterpiece The Drowning Girl. I contend that Woolf and Kiernan fully unite science and mythology in their respective liberatory feminist narratives. Throughout the course of this work, I use pedagogical theory to propose strategies for bringing these authors and their texts into the classroom and making them relevant for college-level literature students by referring to contemporary popular culture.

  • Genealogies of Abortion: On the Limits of Life and Choice in Modern America

    Author:
    Karen Weingarten
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    David Reynolds
    Abstract:

    Genealogies of Abortion focuses on early twentieth-century fiction and primary sources to construct a genealogy of abortion politics that challenges the current binary of "life" and "choice." The project argues that both choice and rights are implicated in a liberal discourse that emphasizes individual autonomy and responsibility. In connection to this argument, the project demonstrates how the anti-abortion position on "life" assumes an individuated personhood and reinforces what Hannah Arendt identifies as modern society's foundation in the recurring cycles of reproduction, which place more importance on ensuring that accumulation is continuous than on valuing the end product. The project thus critiques the foundations of current abortion discourses in individualism and privacy by contending that the liberal construction of subjectivity presumes an already self-determining and privileged citizen. Additionally, the project shows how abortion discourses are rooted in early twentieth-century attempts to maintain a majority white and Protestant citizenry in the face of significant social changes, such as the end of slavery and the dramatic rise in immigration from Catholic countries. Through tracing the emergence of references to abortion in American fiction, it examines how this new interest in abortion politics coincided with an anxiety about whiteness in the United States and a renewed emphasis on the autonomous liberal citizen. Some of the key texts that concern rhetorics of choice and rights are Anthony Comstock's anti-abortion polemics; F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned, which fictionalizes Comstock's interests; Margaret Sanger's pro-birth-control and anti-abortion writings, particularly in The Birth Control Review; and selected popular novels from the early twentieth century that represent abortion. The second half of the dissertation focuses on the rhetoric of life in abortion politics and examines Edith Wharton's Summer in the context of World War I, William Faulkner's The Wild Palms, and Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. Through these texts, Genealogies of Abortion questions how abortion came to be framed in its present terms by examining how abortion discourses were circulated through novels, periodicals, law, and public rhetoric in the early twentieth century, and how those conversations lead to our contemporary understanding of abortion rhetoric.

  • "Self-begot, Self-rais'd": Elective Orphanhood in American Novels, 1790-1852

    Author:
    Karen Weiser
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    William Kelly
    Abstract:

    "Self-Begot, Self-Rais'd: Elective Orphanhood in American Novels, 1790-1852" explores the rhetoric of the family as a national poetics across the birth of American Literature in novels from the 1790s to the 1850s. In it I propose that the figure of the orphan, originating in the pamphlet literature of the American Revolution, became a useful and often-used trope in writing of the period. In novels by Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville, as well as two obscure early popular novels about cross-dressing women (one anonymously published, the other by Herman Mann), I examine the various conceptual contexts, such as republicanism and aesthetics, which make the orphan legible as a figure encapsulating the woundedness and possibility of autogenesis. The elective orphan figure provides a new lens for reading a stock figure of sentimental writing, the sentimental orphan. These orphan figures, when viewed as doubles, shed light on the affective dissonance of revolutionary authority. This dissertation extends the work of Julie Ellison and Lori Merish by revealing the feminization of sympathy from enlightenment discourses of masculine fellow feeling.

  • Clue, Code, Conjure: The Epistemology of American Detective Fiction, 1841-1914

    Author:
    Jennifer Weiss
    Year of Dissertation:
    2014
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Marc Dolan
    Abstract:

    This dissertation posits American detective fiction between 1841 and 1914 as a meaningful category and interrogates forms of knowledge used in this genre. The conventional wisdom on detective fiction creates a dichotomy of British and American production, with British detective fiction in a rational style dominating in importance into the 1920s, and American detective fiction dominating in importance with the "hard-boiled" style of the 1930s and '40s (as described by Raymond Chandler). This dissertation argues that American detective fiction is a meaningful category before and beyond the hard-boiled style. Abductive reasoning, a form of logic based on observation, hypothesis, and confirmation, is the characteristic mode of detection in fiction. Abductive reasoning requires the use of background knowledge to draw conclusions. Therefore, cultural context and beliefs become part of the interpretive process. Works by Edgar Allan Poe, Metta Victor, Anna Katharine Green, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg, and Arthur B. Reeve are used in this study to demonstrate the wide variety of knowledge sources considered relevant in this period. The clearest unit of information in detective fiction is the clue: an object or occurrence that provides critical information toward solving the mystery. The detective figure is the master interpreter of clues, with the observational skills, knowledge base, and imagination to identify and interpret information that others do not. The period of 1841 to 1914 saw extensive industrialization, geographic expansion, and racial turmoil in the United States. Forensic science advanced both technically and culturally as part of a larger movement toward scientific management. The transition to scientific thinking as depicted in detective fiction is, however, significantly complicated by continuing reliance on sentimental and sensational elements such as magic, religion, and intuition and on community-based ethics.

  • The Sounds of War: Radio, the Aural Experience and National Consensus in World War II

    Author:
    Valeri Whitmer
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Morris Dickstein
    Abstract:

    This dissertation examines how the unique creative characteristics of radio contributed to furthering American war goals in World War II. I explore how the imaginative use of sound and the experiential environment of wartime radio in the 1940s influenced audiences in a moment in history when it was possible to create a national consensus through mass communications. My research shows that war messages were colored by the quality of the medium -by sound itself, through what I call the sonic palette, to engage the imagination of listeners and to influence audience reception. Part I of the dissertation discusses the industrial conditions that fostered the development of this repertoire of aural expression, which developed organically over time to compensate for radio's "blind" broadcasting. Radio strove to create an image in the mind's eye, using sound alone, to provide information, atmosphere and emotional character to programs which would be readily understood by listeners. Writers and directors mediated texts with music, sound effects, voice characteristics, and many forms of sonic coloration such as rhythm, pace, dynamics, tone and timbre. Counter intuitively, audience members found the listening experience personal and intimate, despite its broadcast source. In consequence, they were receptive on an emotional level to the nuances of the vocabulary of sound. Part II illustrates how this sonic palette was intentionally used to support intervention before the war and war goals during the conflict, despite the fact that radio was barred by law from advocating political positions. While recognizing the impact of radio on wartime audiences, previous scholarship has concentrated on text, rather than the mediating power of expressive sound. My dissertation exposes that power through the analysis of influential works and performances in entertainment, news and documentary programming. I discuss the contributions of such iconic figures as Paul Robeson and Edward R. Murrow, as well as artists of the sonic palette, Norman Corwin, William Robson, Arch Oboler and others.

  • "Rememory": Memoir and Testimony on Women's Human Rights in the Global South

    Author:
    Joylette Williams
    Year of Dissertation:
    2012
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Meena Alexander
    Abstract:

    When the life writer has experienced violence, injustice, and political unrest within her region, memoir and testimonial writing requires a process involving the writer as victim and as witness and the reader, who also becomes a witness. This multi-layered process is further complicated by patriarchal structures that manipulate cultural values and place the quality of women's lives in jeopardy, which often leads to trauma that the victim revisits throughout her lifetime. Incorporating Toni Morrison's concept of "rememory" as illustrated in the novel Beloved based on Margaret Garner's true-life experience of slavery, I explore trauma not as an isolated event, but as part of one's existence throughout a lifetime. Through the memoir Across Boundaries and through other writings by Mamphela Ramphele, I explore the author's writing process with attention to the ways she approaches injustice, violence, and loss. I preface an analysis of Ramphele's memoir with a contextualization of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission's hearings, the testimonies of which powerfully represent the extent of injustices suffered by the South African people during the apartheid regime. Ramphele makes the effects of apartheid realistic and relevant in the anthropological research she conducts in the work hostels in Cape Town, and she reveals that the memories she is forced to revisit during the writing process continue to traumatize her. Nawal El Saadawi, a medical doctor in her early career as is Ramphele, also explores violence against women as a form of injustice within the context of dominant cultural norms in her native Egypt and throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Her essays and works of fiction reiterate the recurring theme in her memoir Walking Through Fire that rape, domestic violence, and inadequate health care must decrease if women are to be active participants within a new, democratic society.

  • The Mulatta as Cultural and Political Text, or "It Can't Be Too Easy to Be One of a Kind"

    Author:
    Tracyann Williams
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Jane Marcus
    Abstract:

    Mixed race figures appear in many late 19th and early 20th century texts, particularly in the United States. The use of these characters, often female, is deliberate, allowing the authors to actively explore and mediate the anxieties raised in the ante- and post-bellum periods around race, class, nation, and sexuality. By employing two novels (Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun and Nella Larsen's Passing, published in 1928 and 1929, respectively), as well as the 1949 film Pinky, the first chapter illustrates the ways mixed race female or mulatta characters are necessary in understanding the formation of the collective American cultural imagination. It is, then, important to consider silences that occur in texts by iconic literary figures like Willa Cather. Her last novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) has proven discomfiting to critics who cannot place it within her larger body of work. Yet, the author's use of the mixed race female character in her ante-bellum Virginia-based novel invites the need for renewed discussion. In a similar vein, Martha Gellhorn is commonly known as a journalist and Mrs. Ernest Hemingway. However, her 1944 novel Liana¬ł set on a fictional French island, furthered demonstrated her desire to be known primarily as a novelist. Both Cather and Gellhorn are each engaged in their own white female imperialist projects, working out their preoccupations with a shifting political landscape through their mixed race female characters in violent ways. The second and third chapters also examine how these two authors are shaped by dominant ideologies as anyone else. From their writings, I interrogate the unconscious effect these ideologies have on what they put into their work. It is essential for literary critics to revisit and interpret these foundational texts as artifacts of the cultural past to make history more legible. Mixed race female characters are critical to the discussion. Neither black, white, and certainly not male, they dredge up a troublesome racial past that is actually closer to the present day than most would think. The final chapter unveils these themes reinvigorated and reimagined in contemporary narratives like Patricia Powell's The Pagoda (1998), Emily Raboteau's The Professor's Daughter (2005), Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2011), and Danzy Senna's Caucasia (1998), ultimately underscoring that a mixed race canon does exist.

  • Black Bodies Black Fields(s): 20th Century and Contemporary Poetics of the Black Body in African American Poetry and Visual Culture

    Author:
    Ronaldo Wilson
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Meena Alexander
    Abstract:

    This dissertation is a contribution to the growing field of black poetics, exploring the obliterated black body and its juncture with poetry and visual art. It examines the black body<&rsquo>s construction through a conceptual field that reveals both its violent fragmentation and its difficult repair, leading to a larger exploration of the poetics of the black body in 20th century and contemporary African American Poetry and Visual Culture, primarily, through the work of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the artist Ellen Gallagher. Chapter one, A Bronzeville Mother's Vision: The Visual Poetics of Gwendolyn Brooks and Emmett Till, situates Brooks<&rsquo> poems, <&ldquo>A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon<&rdquo> and <&ldquo>The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,<&rdquo> against the famous photograph of the fourteen-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till. Ellen Gallagher<&rsquo>s early paintings, <&ldquo>Host<&rdquo>and <&ldquo>Blubber,<&rdquo> provide the spatial frames crucial in this reading. Chapter two, Theater-In-Seizing the Black Body: Mourning, Ownership and Display, centers on a postcard of an unnamed black man lynched in an abandon plantation field, prompting this question: Can poetry serve as a space where these violent fields can be articulated? Focusing on Brooks<&rsquo> lynching poem, <&ldquo>Ballad of Pearl May Lee,<&rdquo> and Gallagher<&rsquo>s painted-sculpture, Preserve, I explore such necessary conceptual forms in the face of the black body's violation. Chapter three, The Violated Body: Narrative Arc(s) of Possibility, analyzes Hilton Als<&rsquo> reading of lynching photographs in Without Sanctuary. I pair Als<&rsquo> analysis with my own of Amadou Diallo, situating several writers<&rsquo> responses to the black body<&rsquo>s violent public spectacle, to include Brooks<&rsquo> autobiographies, as well as work by poets Elizabeth Alexander and June Jordan, and theorists, Kimberly Benston and Fred Moten. Chapter four, Carrying Hate in Front of You and Harmony Behind: On Process and the Inscrutable Black Body, considers how the black body<&rsquo>s narrative might be retrieved through various texts captured in process. I explore a manuscript version of Gwendolyn Brooks<&rsquo> <&ldquo>the children of the poor<&rdquo>through Ellen Gallagher<&rsquo>s notion of the <&ldquo>drawn and the printed,<&rdquo> while examining the work of contemporary poets, Claudia Rankine, Lucille Clifton, and Dawn Lundy Martin.

  • Inheritors of Progress: Glaspell, the University, and Liberal Culture in the United States

    Author:
    Michael Winetsky
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Edmund Epstein
    Abstract:

    This dissertation illuminates the ethics of a liberal culture in the United States as reflected in the plays and fiction of Susan Glaspell (1876 - 1948). Liberal culture flourishes in colleges and universities, and it also has a social geography associated with places such as New York and Massachusetts as well as Chicago and Iowa. Through a close reading of Glaspell's 1921 drama Inheritors, this dissertation builds a deeper understanding of the ethics of liberal culture -- ways of thinking and behaving that encourage sexual freedom, that value ethnic diversity, that practice peace, that resist the degradations of free market capitalism, and that confront the legacies of European colonialism. My analysis of Glaspell's work demonstrates the resonance of these values with classical liberal political philosophy. This study also explores ideas that emerged with these ethics, but did not gain the cultural traction of other liberal values: a biological and religious concept of progress. Glaspell's voice sounds in a chorus of reformist voices from the Progressive Era: John Dewey, Margaret Sanger, Alice Paul, Upton Sinclair, Walter Lippman and Herbert Croly. Glaspell, to a greater degree than her contemporaries, associated progress with a kind natural religion. My study of Glaspell's work finds new ways to trace the instabilities that made this concept of progress untenable at the time, and unearths some aspects of this progress that might still be viable. My purpose is to bring into relief the situation of liberal culture -- that it has a coherent set of ethics around which groups of people already congregate, but that such groups remain, in a sense, dispirited. In the conclusion of this dissertation, I turn to the Glaspell's work as it reflects on the idea of a university. The purpose of this conclusion is to trouble our contemporary notion of disciplinarity. Glaspell wrote about the university as the moral compass of society, but her plays and fiction were unpalatable to the twentieth-century critics who established the disciplinary boundaries of literary study. Ironically, the ethics of which Glaspell wrote are inscribed everywhere in the humanities, underlying much of our contemporary scholarship.

  • Power-lines: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind

    Author:
    Daniel Wuebben
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Joan Richardson
    Abstract:

    Power-lines examines the intersections between electricity (power-) and landscape (-lines) as they were manifest in American art, literature, science, technology, religion, and philosophy throughout the nineteenth century and into the first part of the twentieth. It alternates between two parallel trajectories. The first line follows "electricity" and "landscape" as defined and circulated by writers such as Samuel Morse, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and Nikola Tesla. I argue that the science of electricity, the aesthetics of the electric, and the understanding of electric technologies provided models for thinking about the perception of nature and landscape. The telegraph particularly influenced popular ideas about communication and the environment, and what I call "the Line" became a popular way to think about, and with, electricity. The telegraph was not only a metaphor but a physical artifact inserted into the environment. Thus, the second trajectory traces poles and wires as described in American fiction, poetry, landscape painting, and film. Overhead grids were crucial to the development of industries and politics that spanned the nation. The Line framed the way Americans looked at themselves and their environment. For example, Henry David Thoreau, who famously rebuked the need for a telegraph line between Maine and Texas, sat beneath the wires and documented the sounds emitted by what he called "the telegraph harp." The wire's sounds were a sign of a supernatural infrastructure that could offer its listeners access to a higher plane of existence. Later in the nineteenth century, the wires stemming from Niagara Falls' power plant seemed to provide a substitute for the frontier lines which historian Frederick Jackson Turner said had disappeared from the American landscape. Such coincidences suggest that the theories and language of electricity--especially terms like shocks, waves, and currents--and electrical infrastructures had a collective influence on popular attitudes about politics, communication, progress, and technology. Although new grids and nation-spanning networks seemed to unite landscape and electricity in a pastoral equipoise, power-lines have signified the increasingly potent and ambiguous effects of lining our environment (and minds) with wires.