Alumni Dissertations

 

Alumni Dissertations

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  • Significant Little Wrecks: Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, and the Question of "Small Poetry" in Twentieth-Century American Writing

    Author:
    John Harkey
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Wayne Koestenbaum
    Abstract:

    Certainly a great deal of critical attention has been paid to collage and disjunction in experimental poetry; likewise, there are valuable discussions of poetic brevity and concision. But there is not yet sufficient work on how the conjunction of these two features constitutes a unique poetic strain, a sort of "genus": spare, damaged groups of words posited as page-contained, emphatically material, readable objects. In this study I argue that there is indeed such a poetic type in twentieth-century American poetry, that it is mainly characterized not by lyric criteria (of voice and subjectivity) or mere size ("short" poems) but by an emblematic use of form, and thus that the significances of this type can best be drawn out through a textual-semiotic approach to the relevant words, pages, and books. I explore a notion of form that entails both the material qualities embodied in these words, pages, and books, and also, much more narrowly, the exclusive potential in constructed things or objects to function as conceptual shells, totem-like vehicles that can figure accretions of ideas, feelings, and associations. Though the study of experimental poetry has regularly made use of semiotics, it has relied almost exclusively on the work of Saussure, neglecting the rich earlier work of thinkers like the American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. In my dissertation I use Peirce's semiotics to help construct a theory of "small poems" in America, focusing on the works of Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen, and, continuing into the present moment, Susan Howe and Myung Mi Kim. The written output of all four poets is almost exclusively limited to disjunctive, spare, page-bound verses. In response to the enveloping, relentless violence and upheaval of modern experience, both before and after the Second World War, these poets present the irreducible facts of their cryptic hand-marked forms. According to my reading, a disciplined commitment to small poems constitutes an investment in negative values of refusal, transience, and inscrutability --what Theodor Adorno calls "barbaric asceticism in the arts" (Minima Moralia)--as means of articulating an emblematic response to twentieth-century violence and superfluity. I also contend that, in spite of these negative postures or gestures, Niedecker, Oppen, Howe, and Kim do not enact the strict Nominalist skepticism about language often claimed for modernist (or "post-modernist") poetics. Instead, in ways consonant with Peirce's philosophical Realism, their poems affirm the adequacy of language to human experience by insisting on their own material status as incised documents of witness and as emblems of dissent.

  • Hearing Cinematic Modernism: Sound, Film, and Modernist Women's Prose

    Author:
    Laurel Harris
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Talia Schaffer
    Abstract:

    This dissertation focuses on the relationship between sound cinema and literary modernism in the interwar period. Recent scholarship on cinema and literature has provided important grounds of comparison between these two media. However, scholars have defined cinema as a visual medium when, in fact, perceptions and valuations of the cinematic medium were historically shaped by sounds as much as images. In this project, I read aural and visual representations in the literary texts of the British writers Vernon Lee, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf in the context of contentious debates on the meaning of sound cinema in the 1910s and 1920s. Exploring the sounds of cinema in women's writing, I argue, asserts the importance of this medium to interwar prose without reverting to visual concepts (like the gaze) that claim a subject and object dichotomy along gendered lines. I conclude by focusing on two early women filmmakers, Alice Guy-Blaché and Germaine Dulac, showing how their development of film sound resonates with the literary texts of Lee, Richardson, and Woolf. My central aims in this project are to explain the value of cinema for women writers in the interwar period and to establish a new means of conducting intermedial research between literature and film through a focus on the audiovisual as well as the visual elements of cinema.

  • "You've Got to Be Modernistic": American Vernacular Modernism, 1910-1937

    Author:
    Brooks Hefner
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Marc Dolan
    Abstract:

    This study interrogates the commonly held assumption that literary modernism--broadly conceived--was an exclusively international, cosmopolitan, and elite movement violently opposed to the commercial marketplace. The thesis of this project argues that modernist literary experimentation appeared in many popular contexts in American literature of the early twentieth century. I call this aesthetically experimental popular writing "vernacular modernism," a reference to its reliance on American slang and to its anti-elitist position in the cultural hierarchy. This "vernacular modernism" drew its inspiration from H.L. Mencken's study The American Language, a work that implicitly allies the American vernacular with both formal and linguistic innovation as well as a harsh critique of the same nineteenth-century bourgeois gentility that canonical modernist writers rejected. Throughout this period, writers in a variety of popular genres were experimenting with language, subjectivity, and representation in works published alongside well-recognized modernist texts. To demonstrate this phenomenon, I apply a combination of cultural studies and formalism to fiction in four genres: humor writing, the Jewish-American memoir, hard-boiled crime fiction, and the urban novel of the Harlem Renaissance. Ring Lardner and Anita Loos, Anzia Yezierska and Michael Gold, Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett, and Rudolph Fisher and Claude McKay serve as paired subjects that transform their respective genres in ways analogous to the literary experimentation of high modernists. Understanding these popular writers as "vernacular modernists" allows a thorough consideration of the authentic dialogue between experimental vernacular language and modernist aesthetics, enabling fruitful new readings of mid-1930s American modernists (William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and John Dos Passos) engaged with regionalism, racial and ethnic identity, and working-class consciousness.

  • The Wild Child: Children Are Freaks in Antebellum Novels

    Author:
    Heather Heim
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Hildegard Hoeller
    Abstract:

    Abstract The Wild Child: Children are Freaks in Antebellum Novels by Heather Bernadette Heim Advisor: Professor Hildegard Hoeller This dissertation investigates the spectacle of antebellum freak shows and focuses on how Phineas Taylor Barnum's influence permeates five antebellum novels. The study concerns itself with wild children staged as freaks in by Sylvester Judd, City Crimes by George Thompson, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Our Nig by Harriet Wilson. Barnum's influence was pervasive. The novels I investigate span a period of fourteen years before the Civil War, and offer a view of the kid show presented by the freaks in each text. Touching into spectacle, authors construct narratives and stage freaks in order to solidify boundaries that define insiders and outsiders. These works offer entertaining and didactic freaks to be gawked at and probed. As is usual with freak shows, the viewers/readers provide as much information about society and spectatorship in nineteenth century America, as do the freaks themselves.  

  • Endless Assents: John Dewey, Aesthetic Experience and the Promise of American Poetry

    Author:
    James Hoff
    Year of Dissertation:
    2012
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Joan Richardson
    Abstract:

    Endless Assents makes the argument that John Dewey's theory of art (articulated in such texts as Experience and Nature and Art as Experience) offers a new and fruitful way of better appreciating and understanding the uniquely generative and transformative value of aesthetic experience in American poetry (specifically in the works of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, and A.R. Ammons). Understood from the perspective of Dewey's explicitly naturalist philosophy of aesthetic experience, the poetry and poetic discourse examined in this dissertation is interpreted (in various different ways) as an example of the simple fact that art is neither a fixed concept nor a static object but is instead a quality of experience, made manifest through active engagement with the environment. Thus art and aesthetic experience, far from representing some abstract ideal of beauty--somehow separate from the ugly business of so-called "ordinary" life--is in fact an active and integral, though rarely realized, part of day to day experience. Understood thus, the aesthetic becomes, as it did for all of the poets in this dissertation, not only a source of pleasure, but a method for engaging with and changing our environment. Such a realization marks a radical shift in the way that American poets thought about the value and use of their own work and of poetry more broadly. This realization, however, as Dewey argues, is impossible without first recognizing the value and embracing the experience of what he called "Animal life below the human scale," for it is in animal life that we can most readily grasp the source of the aesthetic. Unfettered by the many habits, conventions, and false dichotomies of human reason, the animal exists, in a state of constant engagement with the facts of the environment, weaving together seamlessly the past and future into the present moment. Thus this dissertation argues that by recognizing and embracing animal life as a vital and indispensable part of the human, these poets were, in a stereotypically modernist fashion, able to transcend the limits of culture and habit, redefining the very nature of experience. Healing the rift between the human and the animal allowed these poets to then articulate a poetics of aesthetic engagement as a model for transforming life and experience from the ground up.

  • Stars Indeed: The Celebrity Culture of Shakespeare's London

    Author:
    Jennifer Holl
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Mario DiGangi
    Abstract:

    Despite a recent boom of scholarly interest in the cultural, economic, and affective force of celebrity, critical inquiry remains peculiarly limited to the past century, with only a handful of accounts veering into questions of pre-film era celebrity and almost no discussion of the phenomenon's existence prior to the eighteenth century. Stars Indeed expands the putative historical parameters of celebrity to argue that a confluence of theatrical, economic, and social innovations in early modern London gave rise to a nascent celebrity culture that resonated profoundly through performance, print, market exchange, and social relations. As the theater became a stable, public forum for performance and the circulation of current information, the early modern player took on an increasingly visible and important cultural role, embodying and reflecting social innovations and tensions. Facilitated through the reciprocal dynamics between audience and actor in the playhouse, and perpetuated through the player's accessibility and commoditization in performance and print, the emergence of a celebrity culture empowered early modern Londoners with a democratic alternative to traditional discourses and icons of authority circumscribed by birthright. In four chapters, this dissertation explores the collaborative construction of the early modern celebrity in the theater, the circulation and appropriation of celebrity name and image in print media, the tensions between traditional modes of fame enjoyed through birthright and the emergent celebrity of popular performers, and finally, how Shakespeare's enduring and ever-evolving celebrity has colored popular and critical reception throughout the centuries. As celebrity remains a particularly immediate and ephemeral kind of fame, this dissertation illuminates the celebrity presence of notable players, including Tarlton, Alleyn, and Kempe, through careful analyses of these stars' appearances in contemporary ballads, commendatory verse, prose accounts, and staged performances, while also exploring the ways Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston, and other playwrights interrogated the mechanisms, implications, and impact of this developing theatrical phenomenon.

  • Notes Toward a Super Fiction: Revision, Temporality, and the Superhero Genre

    Author:
    David Hyman
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Gerhard Joseph
    Abstract:

    Notes Toward a Super Fiction argues for the recognition of the superhero as a distinct narrative genre that offers provocative ways of conceptualizing the process of revision. This recognition involves an exploration of the idiosyncratic narrative temporality of the genre, as well as the manner in which perpetual revision has evolved as a negotiation of that temporality. Particular emphasis is placed on the parallels to issues concerning revision within the field of composition studies. Chapter One situates the superhero within the emerging discourse of comics studies by examining the contested definitions and histories of three key terms: comics; comic book; and superhero. Chapter Two explores how shifting ideas of the nature and purpose of revision have emerged from and contributed to the temporal ambiguity characteristic of the superhero genre throughout its history, a narrative condition that Eco describes as oneiric. Chapter Three links these shifts to historical transformations regarding revision within composition studies, emphasizing the recent tendency of the field to view revision as embedded in the politics of cultural and institutional authority rather than the practice of textual production. Chapter Four explores potential alternative paradigms of revision as a textual practice through close readings of three superhero narratives that can be described as metarevisionary: Kurt Busiek's "The Nearness of You;" Warren Ellis Planetary; and Alan Moore's Supreme: The Story of the Year. The dissertation concludes by suggesting parallels between the revision strategies explored in the previous chapter and Fredric Jameson's framing of the utopian as irreducible multiplicity, which in turn echoes Deleuze's reading of Nietzschean difference as an alternative to Hegelian dialectics.

  • Mark Twain's Autobiographies: Which Was the Truth?

    Author:
    John Irby
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Fred Kaplan
    Abstract:

    Mark Twain's autobiography was an early example of literary modernism in an unrecognized genre. Its multiple editorial incarnations not only offer evidence that its modernistic elements have been misunderstood but also raise questions about editorial and public acceptance of modernistic elements in literature. Twain's autobiography also raises questions about the relation the human quality of subjectivity bears to factuality in autobiography and the expectations readers bring to autobiography. The plural nature of Twain's autobiographies in the title refers to the author's struggle to find over three decades the artistic form that would express his life story.

  • Deployments of Whiteness: Affect, Materiality, and the Social in Late Medieval English Literature

    Author:
    Wan-Chuan Kao
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Glenn Burger
    Abstract:

    This dissertation examines select medieval discourses of whiteness, both somatic and non-somatic, and their imbrications with the affective, the material, and the social registers of late medieval culture. Contemporary critical whiteness studies remains heavily invested in whiteness as a dermal phenomenon and as a racial marker. But medieval deployments of whiteness, in the absence of a rigid association between racial discourses and color, do not simply denote or connote skin tone. Rather, whiteness as a representational trope makes visible normative cultural ideals such as courtly beauty, Christian salvation, chivalric prowess, or European identity. At the same time, however, whiteness marks the limits of ruling ideologies by registering specific ruptures and ambiguities within the values it signifies. Affectively, as in The Book of the Duchess and in Pearl, whiteness is a figuration of the state of mourning and the workings of desire; it signifies not only the lost body of a feminine Lady but also an international, continental-inspired culture of courtliness in which Chaucer and the Pearl-poet actively participate. Materially, whiteness is an embodiment of cultural refinement and salvific value. Thus, in Pearl, the representation of whiteness as a valuable object highlights its function as a commodity fetish that simultaneously inscribes and erases its history of material labor. Or in late medieval representations of the Passion in Piers Plowman and in mystery plays, the white leather body suit worn by actors playing Christ is literally the material skin of an animal but nonetheless represents the humanity of God, whose suffering flesh stands for the entire body politic of Christendom. Socially, in the cross-cultural encounters between Mongol East and European West, whiteness is a sign of the West's anxious appropriations of the Mongol Khan's superior chivalric prowess and courtliness; the Khan frequently appears white and European in medieval travelogues and in visual art. However much it may be in the nature of whiteness to disguise its working as a universalizing agent in such examples, whiteness is always in play with the affective, material, and social modalities of cultural values in the late Middle Ages. And in the act of play, affective markers of white do become discourses of Whiteness, technologies of performative social negotiations with real material effects.

  • "Keywords" for Post-Imperial Britain: (African-)American Routes to Black British Cultural Studies

    Author:
    Demetrios Kapetanakos
    Year of Dissertation:
    2012
    Program:
    English
    Advisor:
    Robert Reid-Pharr
    Abstract:

    Over the past three decades, Black British theorists Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, and Paul Gilroy have made major contributions to the field of African-American Studies. Their readings of the intersection of race, culture, power, and identity were extremely important. This intellectual dialogue has flowed mostly from Britain to the United States. My dissertation reverses the trajectory and explores how the United States and the African-American experience has shaped Black British Cultural Studies, a term coined in a collection of essays by these figures. I locate the field in the 1970's and 1980's with the rise of Thatcherism. This moment is important because it marks the twilight of British imperialism, as defined by direct colonial rule, and the rise of American Empire, as exemplified through its global dominance in the economic, political, and cultural spheres. As the world order shifted from Britain to America after World War II, the structure of British society transformed from one focused on a rooted way of life to a new identity in this changing global order. British society with its localized culture and working-class camaraderie was replaced by an individualistic, winner-takes-all system embodied in neoliberal ideology. When immigrants from Britain's colonies arrived after the Second World War demanding their own stake in British society, this shift would go on to shape how ideas of identity and belonging that had seemed fixed would now have to be rethought. For these Black British Cultural Studies scholars, the experience of the immigrants from the colonies and their offspring needed a completely new understanding of terms such as empire, nation, culture, migration, and multiculturalism. The narrative of people arriving from the Africa, South Asia, and particularly the Caribbean could not be defined as traditionally British. In each chapter, I explore how the United States and the African-American experience have shaped the development of these concepts in the writings of Hall, Carby, and Gilroy. These figures have challenged the definitions of seemingly definitive terms like nation, culture, and society and have called for new models and narratives to reconceive them and apply them to the contemporary conditions.