Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
A look at the genre of American literary history, as well as at the careers of four nineteenth-century writers, this neo-Marxist study treats the lives and works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth and Richard Stoddard through the productive circumstances of their writing, and through our expectations as consumers of their personalities and texts. Typically, Whitman and Dickinson are recognized as creative individualists who defied the literary and social conventions of their time, while the Stoddards---when they are recognized at all---are remembered in less daring terms. Many critics today regard Elizabeth Stoddard's first novel, The Morgesons, as an unsentimental exploration of sexuality and an innovative foray into realism. Even so, these critics tend to see the radical potential of the novel as compromised by its flawed form, often considered an unsophisticated melding of domestic and realist fiction, and by the failure of Stoddard's subsequent works to build on The Morgesons' critique of middle-class womanhood. Richard Henry Stoddard, meanwhile, is seen as an unremarkable adherent to the genteel tradition, a chapter in American literary history now regarded as stagnantly establishmentarian and conformist. By contrast, Whitman and Dickinson stand forth as the artistic embodiments of personal freedom and innovation.;Close examination of the careers of Whitman and Dickinson (posthumous, in the case of Dickinson) reveals, however, that these celebrated individualists were not as removed from social determinations of identity as their personas suggest, and that their differences from the Stoddards were less a matter of temperament than of personality's articulation through commercialism and publicity. The Stoddards inhabited a literary world where the pre-commercial ideal of refined, amateur anonymity tempered the promotional impulse to peddle authors along with texts. The result for the Stoddards---and their genteel peers---was an authorial identity more conforming than conspicuous, and more explicitly social than subversive. Whitman and the posthumous Dickinson of the 1890s, on the other hand, were commodified in conjunction with the promotion of their texts---by Whitman himself and, in the case of Dickinson, by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. as part of the larger capitalist transformation of subjectivity (what Marxist critics term reification), this promotion of Whitman and Dickinson exemplified the influence of late nineteenth-century literary commercialism on the writing self. The careers of Whitman and Dickinson, in other words, were inextricable from the economic and historical circumstances from which authorship emerged as a profession distinct from the avocation of letters, and from which the author, as a static, marketable persona, emerged as a figure distinct from the writer. The autonomy and originality for which Whitman and Dickinson are acclaimed become, in this light, testaments to ideology. For such independence is a feature of their marketed identities that derives from the objectifying, isolating power of commercialism, rather than from genuine individuality and freedom. Such canonical independence derives, in fact, from what Marx calls the commodity fetish, a perceptual paradigm that isolates and objectifies people, as well as things, in a capitalist system.
© The Author
DeBrava, Valerie Ann, "Authorship and individualism in American literature" (2000). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. Paper 1539623972.