Alumni Dissertations

 

Alumni Dissertations

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  • The Vastness of Small Spaces: Self-Portraits of the Artist as a Child Enclosed

    Author:
    Matthew Burgess
    Year of Dissertation:
    2014
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Nancy Miller
    Abstract:

    A tent of bed sheets, a furniture fort, a corner of the closet surrounded by chosen objects--the child finds or fashions these spaces and within them daydreaming begins. What do small spaces signify for the child, and why do scenes of enclosure emerge in autobiographical self-portraits of the artist? Sigmund Freud's theory that the literary vocation can be traced to childhood experiences is at the heart of this project, especially his observation that "the child at play behaves like a writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, re-arranges the things of this world in a new way." Gaston Bachelard's exploration of space and poetic reverie is also foundational, and I situate Freud's "child at play" within Bachelard's spatial topography in order to examine the ways in which enclosures facilitate the discovery and development of the child's creative capacity. The paradoxical relation between smallness and vastness is a central theme in this dissertation; as the child imagines a world of her own within the small space, spatial constraints dissolve or vanish. My first chapters consider representations of childhood space in the work of two British memoirists at midcentury, Virginia Woolf and Denton Welch, and in the third chapter, I analyze lyric self-portraits by three American poets of the postwar period: Frank O'Hara, Anne Sexton, and Robert Duncan. Others have suggested that childhood enclosures are symbolic of "womb" or "cave," but these interpretations fail to capture the complexity of meanings at play within these scenes. I argue that this recurring figure is less about a lost union with the maternal body or some atavistic memory of the beginning of history; rather, for the author tracing the origins of her creative vocation to childhood, the small space is where the artist is born.

  • Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint

    Author:
    Louis Bury
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Wayne Koestenbaum
    Abstract:

    My dissertation is an exercise in applied poetics, using constraint-based methods in order to write about constraint-based literature. I define constraint-based literature as literature that imposes rules and restrictions upon itself over and above the rules and restrictions (such as grammar and lexicon) inherent in language--as literature that understands itself as part of an avant-garde tradition whose most prominent precursor is the work of the OuLiPo, or "Workshop For Potential Literature," a French writing group, founded in 1960 and still active today, whose purpose is to invent arbitrary constraints for the purposes of generating literary texts. When completed, my dissertation will contain ninety-nine short chapters, each of which follows a different compositional procedure. By tracing the lineage and enduring influence of early Oulipian classics, I argue that contemporary Anglophone writers have, in their adoption of constraint-based methods, transformed such methods from apolitical literary laboratory exercises into a form of cultural critique, whose usage is surprisingly widespread in contemporary Anglophone literature, particularly among poets and experimental novelists.

  • The American Teacher Memoir: From Confessions to the Inspirational True Story

    Author:
    Jessica Cantiello
    Year of Dissertation:
    2012
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Nancy Miller
    Abstract:

    Over 225 American teachers have published autobiographies that recount their lives in public school classrooms, but the teacher memoir, as a literary genre, has yet to receive sustained scholarly consideration. Since at least the beginning of the common school movement in the 1830s, a movement that is chronicled by the first teacher memoirist William Alcott in his aptly named Confessions of a School Master (1839), Americans have put enormous faith in the power of schooling to create an educated citizenry that can sustain a functional democracy. Teacher memoirs combine with portrayals by historians, administrators, policymakers, and scientists to assess the success or failure of education, which is often entangled with the perceived success or failure of America itself. I read teacher memoirs in the context of educational policy and literary history to demonstrate how the cultural climate in a given era shaped the way in which teachers narrated their experiences, and, in turn, how the memoirs influenced educational debates. This study raises complex questions about the political efficacy of literary texts, contributes to discussions within autobiography theory of the ethical considerations of life writing, and enriches historical narratives of teaching and learning.

  • Negotiating Individualism: Apologies, Social Contracts, and the Romantic Making of the Self

    Author:
    Charles Carroll
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Nancy Yousef
    Abstract:

    Abstract Negotiating Individualism : Apologies, Social Contracts, and the Romantic Making of the Self by Charles Durning Carroll Advisor: Professor Nancy Yousef "Negotiating Individualism : Apologies, Social Contracts, and the Romantic Making of the Self" ar-gues that a central mechanism for the formation of our modern identity is the ritual of the apology. This is because as a speech act the apology always involves a recognition of the notion of contract upon which depends much of what we think of as modern about society. According to the view I advance here our understanding of our sense of individualism is based on a negotiation between the personal language of the apology and those collective ideals embodied in the social contract. I argue that our transition from an ancient world of fixed social position to our contemporary, more fluid view of ourselves depended on a movement from social coercion to collective agreement and from the rule of physical force to that of persuasive language. This social change depended first upon reconceiving of ourselves in imaginary terms as persons of equal power, and second on the construction of narratives that helped model our newly reimagined selves. These narra-tives required the use of a new sort of persuasive language--the literary apology. Literary apologies helped construct our modern self because structurally they were contractual offerings--proposals for negotiation and linguistic agreement. Writers of imaginative literature used such literary apologies to habituate readers to the idea of a social contract and to the political equality and individual rights that the contract inherently assumed. After a conceptual and historical overview in the Introduction, the first chapter takes up Hobbes' Leviathan as that form of the social contract ultimately productive of the modern self. The contract Hobbes establishes requires an individual act of forgiveness as one of the preconditions for the establishment of his social contract. Chapter Two shows how in his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau rewrites the Hobbesian social contract by converting this passive idea of forgiveness into the active form of the apology. Chapter Three, on William Godwin's Caleb Williams, analyses the apology's subsequent evolution from an external in-the-world act, to its literary form. In my final chapter I show how Jane Austen, as an inheritor of the literary apology, is able to use it to bring women into being as politically viable entities.

  • "A Bird's Life": Pragmatism in the Field of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

    Author:
    Kristen Case
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Joan Richardson
    Abstract:

    "A BIRD'S LIFE": PRAGMATISM IN THE FIELD OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN POETRY by Kristen Case Adviser: Joan Richardson This work investigates how and where the seeds of American philosophical thought, in particular of that strain of American thinking known as pragmatism, take root in the diverse field of twentieth-century American poetry. In considering the work of Marianne Moore in relation to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost in relation to Charles Sanders Peirce, William Carlos Williams in relation to John Dewey, Charles Olson in relation to Henry Thoreau, and Susan Howe in relation to William James, I have attempted to illuminate some of the far-flung resonances of pragmatist thinking with the work of very different American poets. I take my title from James' description of thought as "like a bird's life" composed of "an alternation of flights and perchings" (Principles 243). By following the flights of pragmatist thinking into the realm of poetry and poetics, I hope to trace a particular epistemology that emerges from diverse forms of American writing, one in which mind and world are understood as inseparable, and the human being is regarded as, in Thoreau's terms, "an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature" ("Walking" 149). One assumption of this work is that intellectual history is most accurately figured not as a line but as an organic growth, that intellectual problems and ways of approaching them are carried like seeds from one genre, one generation, one region to another. Central to my approach is the belief that the meaning of any given work of literature resides not in "the work itself" nor merely in the mind of its readers, but rather in the interaction between reader and text, and further, that this interaction, the complex relationship between a reader and a book, constitutes a legitimate object of inquiry. This extension of the notion of what constitutes the proper object of literary studies is derived from William James' radical empiricism, which insists that "the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less, than the things themselves" (Essays x).

  • The Affective Uses of Dogs: Pet-Keeping in Nineteenth-Century England and America

    Author:
    Keridiana Chez
    Year of Dissertation:
    2012
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Carrie Hintz
    Abstract:

    By focusing on the human-dog bond, The Affective Uses of Dogs: Pet-Keeping in Nineteenth-Century England and America studies how gendered subjectivities are formed through the management of the interspecies intimacies. In the course of the nineteenth century, petted animals became, particularly for the middle-classes, deeply important for their affective uses, reflecting a new ethos of "humaneness" that earned the dog a central place in the affective economies of the family. In their relationships with humans, dogs elicited love, terror, and loathing, and the regulation of these powerful interspecies affects produced bourgeois Anglo-American masculinities and femininities and transformed the dynamics of domesticity itself. The "good" dog, discursively reduced to serve as a technology for the production of affect, was instituted in the family economy to perform positive services through its relationships with humans. In pursuit of domestic harmony, such pets were employed to bind increasingly disparate and insular family members, either by serving as common love objects (in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield and Oliver Twist or common love projects (in Margaret Marshall Saunders' Beautiful Joe). The head of household (human, male) jockeyed in a fragile web of interspecies relations that threatened, in their sincere intimacy, to disrupt his power. Anxieties deepened with the increasing awareness of human dependency on the beloved pet--a love coded as an abjection, a site of ontological annihilation. The proliferation of convincing representations of animal interiority had the unexpected effect of producing the beloved dependent as an increasingly independent agent, and consequently, a potentially mutinous peer. Rising anxieties became entangled with fears of emasculation, especially as certain "dandy" pets were already too closely identified with women of a certain class. In Bram Stoker's Dracula and Jack London's The Call of the Wild and White Fang, we see attempts to defuse this potential for mutiny; interspecies love and care were circumscribed to run their potent course along a well-defined and finite track. In the case of Dracula, the companion animal (and companion woman) who takes up the position of affect-producing, economically useless dependent may be loved and treasured intensely, so long as the lover develops the paranoid willingness to kill the beloved, freeing the lover from an affective tie that endangers his elite position. In London's dog novels, domesticity can no longer contain this menace: the companion animal may be loved, but this love is painfully experienced as an externalized episode, away from the home, like a shameful yet tacitly sanctioned secret. Together, this dissertation argues that the human-dog relationship is a central site for the production of many of the central tenets of bourgeois gender and sexuality.

  • Woolf Play: The Art of Science in Between the Acts

    Author:
    Barbara Coppus
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Joan Richardson
    Abstract:

    In recent decades much has been written about Virginia Woolf and science. It is my contention that Between the Acts, what was to be Woolf's final novel, is her most subtle, most fully nuanced expression of scientific theory. Her interweaving of ideas concerning the primordial, history, the role of the observer, space, matter and time all come together to make this book her most radical and innovative. While extensive studies have been done involving Woolf's entire oeuvre, no in-depth reading has focused exclusively on Between the Acts as it reflects the theories of Charles Darwin, Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur Eddington, Albert Einstein, and quantum mechanics. As background I look at the Victorian world into which Virginia Woolf was born and describe the scientific context with its particular attention to philology and language theory in England. The Victorians had great need for the predictability and order of the Cartesian-Euclidean-Newtonian universe. There was little room for randomness in such a setting, and writers depicted the world through "realistic," cause-and-effect description. But attending to the very important Darwinian information, William James in his 1890 The Principles of Psychology introduced the idea of "stream of thought," where he described thought as a continuous flow deflected, nonetheless, accidentally, like the stream of a river by the accidental features of the river bed. Woolf was intrigued by the issues of sensation and perception and their connection to evolutionary development in her life-long endeavor to capture the transitory nature of human consciousness through language. I offer a concentrated analysis of a work which served as a pivot from the Victorian into the Modern Age. In addition, I deepen the discourse concerning the interplay between language and science during this crucial moment. Through close reading and passage exegesis this dissertation establishes the inextricability of scientific rumination in Virginia Woolf's language in what would be her final attempt to move beyond the limitations of linear, deterministic, patriarchal, realist fiction. Between the Acts remains an exquisite work about the ephermerality of the cosmos and human experience and about the creative spirit in all its forms.

  • The Long Education: Instruction and Interpretation in Milton's Major Works

    Author:
    Zachary Davis
    Year of Dissertation:
    2012
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Joseph Wittreich
    Abstract:

    This dissertation examines the development of John Milton's views on teaching and learning and argues that each of Milton's major works contains within it a search for an effective pedagogical model. By performing close readings of key primary texts and grounding those readings within the historical context of shifting educational theory in the seventeenth century, this work attempts to demonstrate the ways in which Milton's texts foreground literature's pedagogical function while simultaneously questioning the ability of texts to engender spiritual and moral impacts on their readers. This study also attempts to trace the growth and maturation of Milton's views on education from the early works--especially Of Education and Areopagitica--in which Milton stresses the importance of the teacher, whether it is an individual or a text, to Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, works in which the authoritative, educative voices of the texts are often unreliable and, in many cases, misguided. Milton's commitment to a pedagogy that is capable of producing reformed readers, both in a spiritual and a civic sense, is in many ways incompatible with the pervasive concept in his works that the true source of learning is the expression of internal self-sufficiency brought about by external trials. This work argues that this incompatibility leads to conflicting attitudes toward teaching and learning in Milton's life and in his texts. The work concludes with a thorough exploration of Samson Agonistes, in which the text's unrelenting refusal to provide decisive valuations of the moral and spiritual justifications of its characters actions constitutes a pedagogy of uncertainty that is directed squarely at the reader.

  • Battles with Words: Literate and Linguistic Resistance in Multi-Ethnic U.S. Literature and Everyday Life

    Author:
    Melissa Dennihy
    Year of Dissertation:
    2014
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Ira Shor
    Abstract:

    Battles with Words analyzes the role of multi-ethnic U.S. literature as an alternative form of cultural production which critiques and challenges U.S. linguistic and literate hegemony and homogeneity. The texts comprising this field continually emphasize the ways in which words, through language and literacy, become tools of power and action used by the ethnically marginalized to negotiate everyday advantages for themselves and challenge the linguistic and cultural domination of Anglo America. Through their critiques of the culture of English-only monolingualism that has continued to dominate the national landscape of the U.S. throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these authors indicate their concern with the ways language intersects with and impacts literature, as well as their interest in using literature to explore and critique the relationship between language, literacy, race, ethnicity, and citizenship in the U.S. Using seven contemporary multi-ethnic U.S. novels, I examine how these novels portray language and literacy as weapons of the dominant which maintain and reproduce racist, classist systems of power and bureaucracy and as tools for those who are positioned as ethnically, linguistically, and nationally unauthorized, subjugated, and illegitimate to resist their subordination and disenfranchisement. By examining these works through a rhetorical lens, my analyses attempt to elucidate what is (un)said, (un)speakable, and (un)recorded when subordinates confront authorities in various "public" and "private" contexts including classrooms, social services offices, immigration stations, neighborhoods, and homes. The high-stakes literate and linguistic exchanges these works portray offer a multitude of perspectives from which to consider the seemingly mundane, ordinary ways in which language and literacy are used by the marginalized and the powerful as they negotiate various everyday contexts and encounters. While these novels reveal the many problematic uses of literacy and language in power struggles in the U.S., especially as they relate to race, ethnicity, and citizenship, they also suggest alternative ways that language and literacy might be used less hierarchically and more democratically in everyday life, offering models for transforming bureaucratic, institutional, and social encounters. These alternative models should interest not only literary scholars, but also those in the fields of composition, pedagogy, language, literacy and education.

  • John Clare: Helpston's Amanuensis

    Author:
    Nancy Derbyshire
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Alan Vardy
    Abstract:

    This dissertation elucidates the ways in which John Clare's relationship to his native environment impacts his poetic philosophy and practice. In order to take up this question, I establish how Clare's environmental engagements influence aspects of his poetic process, including his tasteful witnessing of sources, mimicry of and correspondence with sources, transcription of sources, and composition. I describe and theorize Clare's documentary poetics, which offers a viable way of interacting with nature by listening to, recording, and composing sound. I also identify some of the literary strategies Clare uses to give voice to nature, including the compositional method sono-loco-documentation. Lastly, I articulate Clare's "trifling" aesthetic sensibility in order to examine his strategic empowerment of rural obscurity, which seeks to establish original centers of poetic value and to demonstrate specific behaviors of critical appreciation. As documentary catalogs of sounds and sights, Clare's poems model a poetic natural history over against Romantic genius. This external captivation revises traditional ideas about the Romantic poet. Clare's work of witness, documentation, and testimony presents a new aesthetic in which the speaker's subjectivity is elided or set aside as a function of broadcasting the voices within nature. This bottom-up (or outside-in) aesthetic advocates for the rights of the [enclosed] land, landless dwellers, nature's "trifles," and the "rhyming peasant." Sound plays a marked role in Clare's identification with his environment. His innovation is to treat sound exchange literally in his poems and use it as a symbol of literary and artistic exchange and evaluation. Thus, his poetic process is characterized by a participatory relation that is auditory, egalitarian, and collaborative. His self-perceived task is to witness and transcribe nature's transmissions; he is Helpston's amanuensis. This framing trope produces an artificial effect (i.e., the absence of, or self-restraint by, a human bard), but it also allows for creative treatment of the loco-descriptive and pastoral modes according to new centers of lyrical value (e.g., rural labor, non-human lives, geographical locus, and aurality). The personification of non-humans represents certain political and ecological attitudes, but Clare extends personhood because it is an effective literary stratagem that accentuates both individuals and the community of Helpston and because it creates a powerful and eccentric source of interest (which trades in pleasurable, copious sounds). The conceit of a vocal nature forges a compelling, basic, and unassailable symbol of the poet. When every thing sings, certainly we must listen.