Theses Doctoral

Fugitive Poetics: Ecological Resistance in the Plantation Era

McIntyre, Katherine

This dissertation presents an account of fugitivity in poetic form as well as political practice. In this account, fugitivity is an ecological strategy of resistance to enslavement, where ecology describes both the set of relations orchestrated between words on a page and the set of relations between species, including humans, on the plantation. In order to understand fugitivity as an ecological strategy, I examine the mutual imbrication of nascent theories of race and ecology in the long nineteenth century. I thus present two competing theories of race and ecology, each of which carries distinct poetic implications. The first, plantation poetics, is evident in poems written on and about plantations in the second half of the eighteenth-century. These poems, in their rigid poetic structures, reinforce the racial and ecological logics of the plantation, in which hierarchical relations between and within species are inherited from early natural histories, and are used to support both slavery and the monocultural cultivation of the plantation. In contrast to this system, I present a fugitive poetics that, sharing the theory of race and ecology as intertwined systems, turns that theory against the ends of the plantation and toward a poetics premised on shifting, porous relations, rather than hierarchies and containment. In so doing, I link fugitivity to a set of formal strategies that were fully operative in nineteenth-century poetics, ecological thought, and political resistance, and that remain relevant for political, ecological, and poetic thought to this day.

Though this project follows a chronological trajectory, its aim is not to present a history of political resistance in the plantation era, nor even a history of poetic form in the nineteenth-century. Instead, it undertakes a strategic analysis of poetic form as necessarily linked to political resistance and to the long history of environmental racism. The first chapter establishes the colonialist poetic tradition I call plantation poetics, tied to maintenance of the ecological enclosure of the plantation. In the work of James Grainger, John Singleton, and Edward Rushton, I argue that the poetic line came to stand in for both the lines of the plantation and the delineation of racial hierarchy so yoked to the natural histories of the eighteenth century. The chapters that follow offer several different models of fugitive poetics, in the work of George Moses Horton and the editors of Freedom’s Journal, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Emily Dickinson, and Albery Allson Whitman. While each of these writers engages with ecology and political domination differently, all of them combine political and ecological investments to create a poetic project that resists the plantation poetics of colonization. The distinct strategies employed by each writer teach us what poetic strategies, and what fugitive practices, are best suited to our current moment of ecological and political crisis.

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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 28, 2020