Theses Doctoral

Casual Things: Poetry, Natural History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century America

Yoon, Ami

This dissertation tracks the literary afterlife of natural history in American literature, long past its term of relevance for scientific experts, and examines how natural history persists as idiom, cultural metaphor, and discursive framework in nineteenth-century literature in a way that informs poetic production. At the juncture of literary and cultural history, history of science, and environmental studies, I reconstruct the enduring literary rapport between poetry and natural history in US culture, showing how the aesthetic innovations of a wide current of poetic experimentalism variously draw upon natural history as a resource.

I therefore push against major received narratives about natural history’s disappearance after the eighteenth century and the development of American poetry as a filiation of European Romanticism. As I read the texts of familiar literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Frances Watkins Harper, and Herman Melville, I recontextualize these figures into a shared poetic strain that reflexively develops upon natural history as a mode of thinking about the New World as a biophysical, social, and cultural habitat.

My chapters analyze these writers’ accounts of poetry and their various experiments with not only the capacities of poetic genres—such as epic or elegy—but also the material production of their poems as objects in the world. In the process, I also show how the different poets of my dissertation confront the violent historical and social repercussions of scientific modernity, colonialism, enslavement and racism, mass extermination, or war, as they advance poetry as the fit vehicle for rethinking the grids of normativity and possibility in modern America.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Arsic, Branka
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 5, 2023