Theses Doctoral

Imitating Matter: Ontologies of Reform in the Literature of the Long Reconstruction

Tsygankova, Valeria

Imitating Matter examines the work of four nineteenth-century American figures for whom the science of matter served as a crucial interlocutor on questions of social and historical change. In several decades stretching to either side of the U.S. Civil War, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and an enslaved potter and poet named Dave, known to scholars as Dave the Potter, all made powerful and original efforts to write to the heart of reform and to reckon with inchoate conditions arising in areas of new social growth. Each of these figures contended in their own ways with the means and possibilities of creating a substantial break with racial slavery in the United States, and, as Imitating Matter uncovers, each assigned a central place in their investigations of reform to the transformability, ongoing creativity, and capacity for emergence that they associated with matter. Instead of understanding matter as inert or inanimate, these thinkers adapted contemporary scientific notions about principles of life, growth, and development integral to matter to formulate the prospects and challenges of historical change, aligning the efforts of human reformers with a capacity for new beginnings ontologically rooted in matter’s prolific becoming. In turn, naturalizing social change to varying degrees led these figures to grapple with conceptual challenges, like halting and protracted timespans, the frustrations of orchestrating distributed interventions in belief, and prolific examples of the non-arrival of change in the decades after Emancipation. Recent scholarship on nineteenth-century American thought has identified an investment in vitalist materialism shared amongst scientists, writers, and intellectuals of many persuasions; Imitating Matter reveals the rich threads of relation that nineteenth-century writers conducted between matter and politics and adumbrates a phase in American progressive thinking informed by matter’s agitations.
Chapter 1, “Dave the Potter’s Crises of Keeping: Preservative Transformation and National Survival,” reads Dave the Potter’s late couplets, written between 1858 and 1862, through his earlier work’s focus on material transformations. Examining Dave’s extant inscribed stoneware jars, created for his legal owners in South Carolina between c. 1830 and 1862, this chapter identifies a logic of keeping-by-transforming enacted in Dave’s poetic couplets and in the clay bodies of the jars on which his writing appears. The late crisis couplets of 1858-62 identify a threat of national dissolution unless the nation can be preserved through the saving actions of “listening” and “repentance,” positioning the possibility of national reform next to a litany of other activated preservative transformations, which allow materials to endure by fundamentally altering their substance. Like clay turning into stoneware in a scorching kiln, animal flesh turning into salted meat or leather through submersion, and underground bodies turning into fossils, the nation, placed in proximity to these materials susceptible to dissolution but saved by transformation, was likewise envisioned preserved through substantial internal change. By casting the nation’s survival in proximate terms to the losing and keeping of earthly and animal matter, Dave used the chemistry of material mutation to think through the possibility of historical change.
Chapter 2, “Thoreau, Milton, the Teeming Earth, and the Institutions on It,” interprets the manifold connections built by Henry David Thoreau in essays, lectures, Walden (1854), and the journals, between radical antislavery thinking, on the one hand, and what he called the “radical” constitution of matter, on the other. This chapter first sketches the relationships that Thoreau constructs between a matter characterized by emergence and the human political capacity to begin anew, most visible in the phenomena that Thoreau calls “wild” – namely, mountaintops, swamps, Walden Pond, mud, the song of the wood-thrush, the insides of elms, and the early morning hours. This chapter then demonstrates that the apprehensions of vital, animate matter that ensue in these moments, inflected with John Milton’s vitalist monism and matter’s strange capacities for emergence in Paradise Lost, also inform the politics of Thoreau’s
antislavery essays written after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and John Brown’s raid (1859). Thoreau’s ontologically rooted vision of political reform was underwritten by a radicalism that he saw inherent in nature, matter constantly betraying old forms and put new ones into circulation. Fleshing out the Miltonic inheritance in Thoreau’s thinking also adumbrates the regular associations that Thoreau makes between John Brown and the English Revolution – another literary and political moment in which an ontology of animate matter was understood to have consequences for politics and historical transformation.
Chapter 3, “Uttering like the Earth: Frederick Douglass’s Reform Theory” elucidates the rich theories of reform found in Frederick Douglass’s wartime “picture lectures” (“Age of Pictures,” “Lecture on Pictures,” “Life Pictures,” and “Pictures and Progress”). Instead of understanding Douglass’s “pictures” as photographs and daguerreotypes, as many recent interpreters have done, I piece together the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and Thomas Carlyle’s theories of projection-fetishism on Douglass’s lectures, in order to show that their strangely behaving “pictures” are beliefs uttered and made corporeal. Douglass improvised on the projective dynamics described by Feuerbach and Carlyle – whereby believers invent their own devotional objects by projecting them outward and becoming susceptible to their influence – in order to argue that a post-emancipation national shift in structures of feeling around race and freedom would depend on the ability of reformers to give powerful corporeal form to a belief in Black freedom. While the picture lectures are often read as digressions from Douglass’s wartime oratory, this chapter reads them as continuous with Douglass’s many wartime speeches that diagnose a hazardous deficit of belief among northern Republicans – a wartime failure to imagine racial equality that would leave the emancipationist project exposed in later years. Douglass’s theory of social change by way of “picturing” took the ongoing “utterance” of the earth and of “ever-moving matter” as a paradigmatic model for the materialization of belief by reformers, finding “progressive lessons” in the earth’s regular expansions of existence.
Chapter 4, “‘To Denizen Denied’: Failed Emergence in Emily Dickinson’s Affective Chronology of Reconstruction,” tracks a rhetoric of emergence in Emily Dickinson’s coded writing on Black freedom and national reform from the early war years through the 1880s. In the early 1860s, in poems and in her correspondence with writer, naturalist, activist, and colonel of the first Union regiment of ex-slaves, T. W. Higginson, Dickinson wrote about a prospective harvest of Black freedom emerging from the war, and in particular from the action of the Black soldier. This chapter argues that after the war, as Reconstruction advanced, Dickinson returned to writing about Black freedom in the same natural register, her poems of absent harvest and disappointing bloom responding to the non-arrival of substantial national change. During the Reconstruction years, like other poets and artists in the Republican-leaning periodicals that she preferred, Dickinson responded to news of Emancipation’s failures and incompletions, her postwar poetry and correspondence with Higginson registering a trajectory of feeling from the anticipated promises of the war years to the unaccomplished transformations of the years after. While Dickinson has been read as a Civil War poet, this chapter helps show the ways in which she is also a poet of Reconstruction.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Posnock, Ross
Graham, Thomas Austin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 30, 2019