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My dissertation rethinks the place of aesthetic form in American literature. Critiquing prevalent methods in both literary theory and American studies, it shows how these discourses have relied on, without being able to acknowledge, a notion of literature as a special kind of object defined by its capacity to resist critical capture. Pairing readings of key literary texts with discussions of influential critical accounts, I show how this notion of “discovering form” – a form that discovers or reveals something new, as well as that new thing which form discovers – emerges not as a hidden property of literature, but as the interplay between criticism and literature. Rather than a special property of literature, form emerges as a capacity that literature makes available by failing to guarantee. Working both historically and theoretically, my argument moves from mid-nineteenth-century American romanticism, the originary moment for American literary study, to the aesthetic logic of twenty-first century culture in which contemporary humanistic study struggles to find its place. My first two chapters argue that the romanticism of the American Renaissance imagines literature as its own collapse into the world. I begin with a reading of Moby-Dick, arguing against the Ahabian and Ishmaelite attempts to find Melville’s whale as, respectively, American ur-commodity or sublimely autonomous form. I show instead how Melville imagines his whale as both object and mode of pursuit, emerging only in the form of his own literary language, itself the very powerful historical object that readers grasp as Moby-Dick. My second chapter shows how Edgar Allan Poe borrows his complex theories of aesthetic and cosmic form from the very un-Poe-like “Pundita,” a character he imagines in the twenty-first century. Against ecocritical and new materialist readings of romanticism, which have argued that literature can teach us a post-dualist, anti-capitalist thinking, I show instead how Poe’s method is predicated not on a new, organicist form of thinking, but a perilous identification with a world (Pundita’s, and perhaps his reader’s) that he imagines as his own extinction. My last two chapters chart the afterlives of the romantic aesthetic, arguing for the continued power of literature after its collapse into a contemporary political and economic logic that (as critics of biopolitics and neoliberalism have argued) is modeled on aesthetics. Discussing the social-scientific theory and gothic short stories of early feminist reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I show how her work's refusal to separate normative social science and imaginative fiction can help us think against the very coerciveness that her politics, in retrospect, seem to embody. In my final chapter, I argue that contemporary novelist Richard Powers’ use of free-indirect narration to encompass both corporate speech and private consciousness, by showing its own form to be that of the post-industrial capitalism that it tries to represent, reveals literature's power as no different from that of the post-industrial economy that it often ranges itself against. Showing how these texts dramatize their own failure as their identity with the world, I argue that aesthetic redemption is exactly what literature cannot offer. My dissertation’s ultimate claim is that literature continues to teach criticism how to leave behind the fantasies it imagines and that literature embodies.


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