Theses Doctoral

The Outward Turn: Personality, Blankness, and Allure in American Modernism

Diebel, Anne

The history of personality in American literature has surprisingly little to do with the differentiating individuality we now tend to associate with the term. Scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture have defined personality either as the morally vacuous successor to the Protestant ideal of character or as the equivalent of mass-media celebrity. In both accounts, personality is deliberately constructed and displayed. However, hiding in American writings of the long modernist period (1880s-1940s) is a conception of personality as the innate capacity, possessed by few, to attract attention and elicit projection. Skeptical of the great American myth of self-making, such writers as Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Nathanael West, and Langston Hughes invented ways of representing individuals not by stable inner qualities but by their fascinating--and, often, gendered and racialized--blankness. For these writers, this sense of personality was not only an important theme and formal principle of their fiction and non-fiction writing; it was also a professional concern made especially salient by the rise of authorial celebrity. This dissertation both offers an alternative history of personality in American literature and culture and challenges the common critical assumption that modernist writers took the interior life to be their primary site of exploration and representation. Instead, it argues for a reassessment of American modernism as crucially concerned--in its literary texts and in its professional literary culture--with surface, blankness, and opacity, all barriers to seeing inside which nonetheless produce an impression of personal power.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Posnock, Ross
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 16, 2013