Theses Doctoral

Active Enchantments: Form, Nature, and Politics in American Literature

Kuiken, Vesna

Situated at the crossroads of literary studies, ecocriticism and political theory, Active Enchantments explores a strain of thought within American literature that understands life in all of its forms to be generated not by self determined identities, but by interconnectedness and self abandonment. I argue that this interest led American writers across the nineteenth century to develop theories of subjectivity and of politics that not only emphasize the entanglement of the self with its environment, but also view this relationship as structured by self overcoming. Thus, when Emerson calls such interconnectedness "active enchantment," he means to signal life's inherent ability to constantly surpass itself, to never fully be identical with itself. My dissertation brings to the fore the political and ecological stakes of this paradox: if our selves and communities are molded by self abandonment, then the standard scholarly account of how nineteenth century American literature conceptualized politics must be revised. Far from understanding community as an organic production, founded on a teleological and harmonizing principle, the writers I study reconceive it around a sense of a commonality irreducible to fixed identity. The politics emerging out of such redefinition disposes with the primacy of individual or human agency, and becomes ecological in that it renders inoperative the difference between the social and the natural, the human and the non human, ourselves and what comprises us.

It is the ecological dimension of what seems like a properly political question that brings together writers as diverse as Emerson and Sarah Orne Jewett, Margaret Fuller and Henry and William James. I argue, for example, that in Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, racial minorities emerge from geological strata as a kind of natural archive that complicates the nation's understanding of its communal origin. When she sets her romances on Native American shell mounds in Maine, or makes the health of a New England community depend on colonial pharmacopoeia and herbalist healing practices of the West Indies, Jewett excavates from history its silent associations and attunes us not only to the violent foundation of every communal identity, but to this identity's entanglement in a number of unacknowledged relations. Her work thus ultimately challenges the procedures of democratic inclusiveness that, however non violent, are nevertheless always organized around a particular notion of identity. The question of the self's constitutive interconnectedness with the world is as central to Margaret Fuller's work. Active Enchantments documents how Fuller's harrowing migraines enabled her to generate a peculiar conception of the "earthly mind," according to which the mind is material and decomposable, rather than spiritual, incorruptible or ideal. This notion eventually led her to devise a theory of the self that absolves persons from self possession and challenges the distinctiveness of personal identity. My concluding chapter argues that Henry James's transnational aesthetics was progressively politicized in the 1880s, and that what scholarship celebrates as the peak of his novelistic method develops, in fact, out of a network of surprising and heretofore unexplored influences, William James's concurrent theories of corporeal emotion, Mikhail Bakunin's anarchism, and Henry James's friendship with Ivan Turgenev, which inflamed James's interest in British politics, the Russo Turkish War, and the Balkan revolutions.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Arsic, Branka
Posnock, Ross
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 29, 2014