Theses Doctoral

Seeking the True Contrary: The Politics of Form and Experience in American Modernism, 1913-1950

Webre, Jude Patrick

This dissertation reconstructs the tradition of “democratic modernism” in the United States from its origins in the fertile avant-garde circles of the early 1910s through the maturation of American modernism as a cultural institution in the 1920s, the subsequent challenge to its authority by the radical social movements of the 1930s, and culminating in the ideological battles and profound geopolitical shift during and after World War II. It focuses on the overlapping intellectual careers of four literary figures – William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Burke, Archibald MacLeish, and Charles Olson – against the background of a wider cohort that included Marianne Moore, Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, F. O. Matthiessen, Melvin Tolson, Ruth Benedict, Edward Dahlberg, Dwight Macdonald, and Allen Ginsberg. The dissertation argues that debates over form and experience, strongly influenced by the writings of Ezra Pound and John Dewey, defined these central figures’ efforts to conceptualize a democratic subject grounded in aesthetic experience. For the democratic modernists, the poetic subject became a metaphor for a fully realized democratic subject, and “poetry” came to symbolize not just verse but also a heightened aesthetic orientation towards society that could serve as the basis for cultural reform and, for a time, revolutionary transformation.
In reconstructing democratic modernism as a tradition, this dissertation aims to rethink the origins of the postwar counterculture as the political and philosophical heir of radical democracy in the interwar period. As the counterculture emerged in the shadow of the Cold War, leading figures such as Olson and Ginsberg helped shift the political ideals of the 1930s left towards aesthetic practice, preserving a cultural space for radical democracy between official anti-Communism and the aesthetic autonomy professed by intellectual elites. It concludes that the “true contrary” that Olson urged his fellow poets and artists in the late 1940s to seek through aesthetic practice had been there before him and continues to be a relevant stance within American society. This tradition proposes that through an active and critical inquiry into the conditions of one’s experience and the values that make them up, any person through receptivity, imagination, and poetic speech, broadly construed, can mediate the seeming oppositions in society, creating new forms of understanding, ritual, and symbolic experience.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blake, Casey N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 12, 2017