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This dissertation critically interrogates intersections of millennialist nationalism, whiteness, and American poetry between the Civil War’s commencement in 1861 and Reconstruction’s collapse following the U.S. presidential election in 1876. Invoking Emily Dickinson’s spectral trope of the “Ourself behind ourself”, I present a revisionist account of the reception history of Leaves of Grass wherein I argue the twentieth-century monumentalization of Whitman’s free verse as a radical prosodic break has simultaneously disseminated an account of American democracy in which whiteness has been disavowed and rendered immaterial. Lensing recent scholarly rehabilitations of nineteenth-century American poetry through anti-imperialist, decolonizing accounts of whiteness developed within a theologically-inflected lineage of critical race studies, I re-cite and re-site formal, disciplinary, and secularist metrics that hypostatically organize the century along an antebellum/postbellum divide. Alongside ongoing scholarly reconstructions of “our” nineteenth century, I argue historical poetics begins by asking not, with positivist élan, what we now know of the nineteenth century; rather, what might the nineteenth-century know now of us? What ethical, hermeneutic, and historiographic undercurrents surface when “white” poets of the era are labeled as white—that is, as inheritors of a racially reifying, theological aesthetic of expropriated land and commodified enslavement dissimulated by whiteness’ ascriptive function in demotic usage. In a era beleaguered by institutional legacies of nineteenth-century white supremacy—the promise and subsequent retrenchment of public education, the structural exploitation of the 13th Amendment’s exception clause in the form of mass incarceration, relentless incursions upon indigenous sovereignty, and public relitigation of birthright citizenship prompted by anti-immigrant demagoguery—the illimitable jurisdictional dispensation of White Election, and typological exegetes of scripture that christened waves upon waves of violence in the nineteenth century with the rhetoric of providence and covenant, poetry seems an improbable (if not anachronistic) site for refiguring, redressing, and reconstructing the mal-distribution of the sensible, which calls for an aesthetics ethically grounded in and beginning from an equitably distributed collectivity rather than the a priori enshrinement of propertied individuation. Yet, no period in U.S. history testifies more emphatically to the centrality of verse, much of it ‘minor’ or ‘occasional,’ for negotiating whiteness in the nineteenth century than the Civil War. The extent to which compositions and readings/performances of verse sanctioned and sacralized the contours and coloration of civic belonging by (re)mediating everyday social exchanges remains unprecedented. This dissertation, then, takes the measure(s) of Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville and emplots them alongside the entrained temporality of millennialist eschatology coursing through the versified journalism of battle hymns, minstrel songs, and abolitionist anthems anthologized in the newspaper poets of Frank Moore’s Rebellion Record and Emily V. Mason’s Lost Cause collection Southern Poems of the War. Thus reintroduced to the popular, ambient airs from which their variant trajectories of canonization have sequestered them, new narratives of the continuities and ruptures between “their” era and “ours” unfold. By sublimating material legacies of racial and ethnic eradication, territorial expropriation, acculturation, assimilation, and coercive conversion, the historicity of whiteness’ own ethnic massifications—renewed and redeemed for posterity by Whitman studies as the autochthonous voice of American democracy—has abjured temporal flux for a timeless theodicy implicitly and explicitly predicated upon an expansive exteriority of dominion-in-perpetuity and an immutable interiority of redemptive martyrdom. Out of step with this massifying telos, my reading (with Susan Howe as interlocutor) of Dickinson’s antinomian hymns and Melville’s perennially untimely Clarel, a Counter-Centennial opus of 17,863 lines of rebarbative iambic tetrameter, recuperates previously inaudible voices of radical, ‘un-American’ dissensus from their ostensibly staid, antiquated prosodic forms. Whereas Dickinson’s most concentrated poetic dehiscence has historically been read apart from the war with which it curiously coincided, Melville’s astonishing and restless metrical experiments have yet to reverberate beyond the curiously resilient refrains of lament by his few readers that one hears often enough of Melville while hearing little of poetry. Both poets, I argue, unearth melancholic emplotments of time engendered by allegorical readings of afterness as generative, recursive restagings of inexpiable obligation toward emergent formations of transnational, anti-imperial solidarity. In my closing rereading of Clarel through Howe and Dickinson, such formations articulate themselves through an antinomian renunciation of a nineteenth-century feminine whiteness historically impressed into patriarchal, millennialist crusades to jurispathically consolidate the massifying consensus commemorated into the matter of record.


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