American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions

American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 440
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions
    Book Description:

    Rethinking the category of aesthetics in light of recent developments in literary theory and social criticism, the contributors to this volume showcase the interpretive possibilities available to those who bring politics, culture, ideology, and conceptions of identity into their critiques. Essays combine close readings of individual works and authors with more theoretical discussions of aesthetic theory and its relation to American literature. In their introduction, Weinstein and Looby argue that aesthetics never left American literary critique. Instead, the essay casts the current "return to aesthetics" as the natural consequence of shortcomings in deconstruction and new historicism, which led to a reconfiguration of aesthetics.

    Subsequent essays demonstrate the value and versatility of aesthetic considerations in literature, from eighteenth-century poetry to twentieth-century popular music. Organized into four groups -- politics, form, gender, and theory -- contributors revisit the canonical works of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Stephen Crane, introduce the overlooked texts of Constance Fenimore Woolson and Earl Lind, and unpack the complexities of the music of The Carpenters. Deeply rooted in an American context, these essays explore literature's aesthetic dimensions in connection to American liberty and the formation of political selfhood.

    Contributors include Edward Cahill, Ivy G. Wilson, June Ellison, Dorri Beam, Christopher Castiglia, Christopher Looby, Wendy Steiner, Cindy Weinstein, Trish Loughran, Jonathan Freedman, Elisa New, Dorothy Hale, Mary Esteve, Eric Lott, Sianne Ngai

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52077-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)

    For a long time, what made American literature distinctive, even exceptional, was held to be its aesthetic particularity: its characteristic “organic form,” its embrace of romance rather than realism, its colloquial style, or some other discovered or invented aesthetic quality.¹ Then it came about that this critical use of aesthetic categories to identify and analyze American literature was considered spurious and politically suspect—held to constitute a dangerous and morally blameworthy evasion of history and political reality. So for many years the predominant approach in American literary studies, as in many other sectors of the academic humanities, was a politically...

  5. PART 1 Aesthetics and the Politics of Freedom
    • 1 Liberty of the Imagination in Revolutionary America
      (pp. 39-55)

      John Trumbull’s Essay on the Use and Advantages of the Fine Arts (1770), read at the “Public Commencement in New-Haven,” makes one of the earliest American arguments for the moral efficacy of aesthetic pleasure. Borrowing liberally from Henry Home, Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762), Trumbull declares that the “elegant entertainments of polite literature . . . ennoble the soul, purify the passions” and give “delicacy and refinement to our manners.” Although he laments that the fine arts are “too much undervalued by the [American] public . . . neglected by the youth in our seminaries of science [and] ....

    • 2 The Writing on the Wall: Revolutionary Aesthetics and Interior Spaces
      (pp. 56-72)

      At a symbolic moment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), the nameless protagonist finds himself glancing at the images on the wall in one of the Brotherhood field offices. They include a map adorned with a heroic Christopher Columbus and a poster, “The Rainbow of America’s Future,” depicting a romanticized picture of a multicultural U.S. But the most symbolic image on the wall is the portrait of Frederick Douglass. Perhaps more than any other African American, Douglass has been made an icon and lionized equally by both radicals and moderates alike as the embodiment of an American democratic potentiality. As...

    • 3 Stephen Crane’s Refrain
      (pp. 73-90)

      Poetry’s liberation from the shackles of meter is one of the most important nonevents in late nineteenth-century literary history. It’s important because it is to this day so commonly invoked, not only to legitimate a particular way of reading poems, as if they were what Theodor Adorno calls “depositions of impulses,” but also to celebrate the human subject’s liberation from inauthenticity and expressive constipation.¹ It’s a nonevent because the long and complex history of versification in English poetry is poorly suited to teleological narratives of liberation, despite a lot of early twentieth-century fanfare about breaking “new wood” and “insurgent naked...

    • 4 Lyric Citizenship in Post 9/11 Performance: Sekou Sundiata’s the 51st (dream) state
      (pp. 91-114)

      In June 2004 Sekou Sundiata addressed a national gathering in Pittsburgh, “Diversity Revisited/A Conversation on Diversity in the Arts.” Sundiata’s speech, “Thinking Out Loud: Democracy, Imagination, and Peeps of Color,” makes explicit the fact that he shared the meeting’s general impatience with the status quo on multiculturalism and that this impatience propelled his turn to the conjoined forces of democracy and imagination. “Democracy,” like “citizenship,” is for him not only a feature of political systems or a matter of state but rather a repositioning of the subject: “a humane social practice that . . . brings together the inner need...

  6. PART 2 Aesthetics and the Representation of Sexuality
    • 5 Aesthetics Beyond the Actual: The Marble Faun and Romantic Sociality
      (pp. 117-136)

      No one seems capable of saying or writing a sentence these days without throwing in the word actually for no apparent reason. Actually is the new like. This change in idiom might seem insignificant, but it marks a worrisome displacement, a shift from approximation to dead certainty, from coy affection to self-evident empiricism, from the surprising to the reassuring, from aesthetics to facts. Sure, actually may satisfy the psychic cravings of an age so inundated with virtuality as to starve for the real. At the same time, however, we’ve evolved into a culture of open secrets in which half-truths are...

    • 6 Henry James, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and the Figure in the Carpet
      (pp. 137-155)

      The troubled, even catastrophic, history of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s and Henry James’s literary and personal friendship has led a notable critical afterlife, epitomizing male homosexual panic in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s account and emblematizing James’s egregious professional misogyny in numerous feminist accounts. Despite the odds, I want to propose that another history lies between James and Woolson in the less charted terrain of their fiction, and in so doing I wish to suggest the ways that the aesthetic domain opens onto and sometimes extends the terrain for social relations. While Woolson’s first and best-known artist story, “Miss Grief,” has become the...

    • 7 Sexuality’s Aesthetic Dimension: Kant and the Autobiography of an Androgyne
      (pp. 156-177)

      “I happen to be an aesthete,” averred the self-described sexual invert or “fairie” who wrote under the pseudonym Earl Lind, in his incomparable Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918).¹ But, despite the rhetoric of mere accident, there appears to be a good deal more than a coincidental relationship between the aesthetic proclivities and the sexual tastes of the pseudonymous author to whom I will henceforth refer, in deference to his own stated preference, as “Pussie.”² Pussie tells us early on in his tale that, in the provincial community where he spent his early years, he “was probably more a prey to...

    • 8 From Hawthorne to Hairspray: American Anxieties About Beauty
      (pp. 178-194)

      In the arts of the New World one can discover almost any Old World topos in aesthetics. The English beauty fable Frankenstein finds a New England counterpart in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” and the paradoxes of Baudelaire and Wilde echo in Warhol’s “Beauty is shoe” and the camp and glamour of Hollywood cinema. But if beauty is too universal a category to respect national borders, we might still note how beauty anxieties play out in the American context, and that is the limited goal of this paper.

      Venus in Exile describes the marginalized status of beauty in twentieth-century modernism and notes...

  7. PART 3 Aesthetics and the Reading of Form
    • 9 When Is Now? Poe’s Aesthetics of Temporality
      (pp. 197-218)

      Time is an essential component in the narrative of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Augustus’s watch stops and his father’s chronometer disappears. The passage of days, hours, and minutes occupies much narrative space and anxious speculation. The narrative assumes the form of a log with months and dates demarcated. But time’s presence runs even deeper. Adverbs designating the passage of time, for example after and at length, are a constitutive feature of Pym’s narrative fabric, as are adjectives that convey an experience of time, such as immediate and still. As much as Pym’s is a journey in space, his...

    • 10 Reading in the Present Tense: Benito Cereno and the Time of Reading
      (pp. 219-241)

      This is an essay, in part, about the historical moment in which Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno was composed and then consumed by historical readers. It began as an experiment in which I wondered whether I could both make use of the skills I had amassed as a historicist—in particular my knowledge of the local book cultures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—even as I joined that knowledge to a different set of questions about the (potentially) less historically grounded practice of reading. I wanted to consider the extent to which reading is an experience that can in fact...

    • 11 What Maggie Knew: Game Theory, The Golden Bowl, and the Critical Possibilities of Aesthetic Knowledge
      (pp. 242-262)

      It’s a sign of the times: critics have been busy filling in the once-formidable crevasse between the ideal of the aesthetic—with an attendant sense of capacious consciousness, moral insight, expansiveness of perspective, affective appeal—and that of the economic—thrower of a Weberian net of instrumentalism, embodiment of sterile, dry rationalism. Nowhere has this project been more strenuously pursued than in the study of the Victorian novel, where the economic wing of the critical edifice has been built with remarkable energy by critics like Regenia Gagnier, Catherine Gallagher, and Mary Poovey.¹ Their work differs considerably from the previously dominant...

    • 12 Upon a Peak in Beinecke: The Beauty of the Book in the Poetry of Susan Howe
      (pp. 263-288)

      A scrap of Emily Dickinson’s “cream laid” notepaper traced with graphite, the face of the manuscript buffed and eroded by time and the friction of the oblong envelope (acid free) in which it is stored.

      A strip of denuded gray homespun or of the muslin once used for bed curtains, the fabric threshed by time to a mere crosshatch of warp and woof: porous, skeletal.

      The ambered tissue of a nineteenth-century frontispiece overleaf.

      A crushed, torn origami, one friable finger’s length, shaped like a weathervane, ripped from a Webster’s dictionary, 1840 edition, tiny crumbles sifting from the edges.

      The black-and-white...

  8. PART 4 Aesthetics and the Question of Theory
    • 13 Warped Conjunctions: Jacques Rancière and African American Twoness
      (pp. 291-312)

      Have literary and cultural studies become disenchanted with disenchantment? There is evidence that, at least in some quarters, ideology critique may be losing the dominance it has enjoyed for the last two or more decades. Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” now tops the list of the most frequently cited essays ever published in Critical Inquiry. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, too, suggested that the dominant critical disposition fueling the “hermeneutics of suspicion” may have exhausted itself. And Peter Sloterdijk’s 1988 treatise A Critique of Cynical Reason is enjoying new bibliographic life in a number of recent...

    • 14 Aesthetics and the New Ethics: Theorizing the Novel in the Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 313-327)

      In the introduction to a 2002 special issue of diacritics on ethics and interdisciplinarity, Mark Sanders asks us to consider, “What points of contact, if any, are there between the current investment in ethics in literary theory, and the elaboration of ethics in contemporary philosophy?” Yet the question behind this question—the one that motivates his selection of essays for the issue—is why literary critics and theorists have drawn their ideas about ethics from Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou with little or no felt need to consult past or present moral philosophers. As...

    • 15 Postwar Pastoral: The Art of Happiness in Philip Roth
      (pp. 328-348)

      Esquire’s January 1962 issue contained an excerpt from Philip Roth’s novel Letting Go titled “Very Happy Poems.” Taken from the middle of the novel, these are the words that the high-strung Libby Herz is reduced to uttering when encouraged by the representative of an adoption agency to describe the “kind” of poems she writes. None the wiser from his initial line of inquiry—“Do you write nature poems, do you write, oh I don’t know, rhymes, do you write little jingles?”—the agent tries again, following Libby’s breathy declarations of enthusiasm for Keats, Donne, and Yeats: “And how about your...

    • 16 Perfect Is Dead: Karen Carpenter, Theodor Adorno, and the Radio; or, If Hooks Could Kill
      (pp. 349-366)

      The Carpenters seem made to order for what Theodor Adorno in a famous essay called “the fetish-character in music and the regression of listening.”¹ Nothing in the smooth, reified, even fetishistic sheen of songs such as “Close to You”—a brand of Los Angeles vernacular sentimental poetic production for the airwaves—suggests the potential for authentic aesthetic experience or expression. The apparently unbroken surface of this industrially manufactured sound, however, is in fact riven by longing, constriction, and discomfort, and I will argue that it constitutes a kind of negative dialectic of the L.A. that had so revolted Adorno during...

    • 17 Network Aesthetics: Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social
      (pp. 367-392)

      Whether regarded with optimism or ambivalence, the rise in the late 1960s of a “global network culture” characterized by an “unprecedented abundance of informational output and acceleration of informational dynamics” (and historically shaped by the late-twentieth-century restructuring of the capitalist mode of production),¹ is widely thought to have led to a “qualitative change in the human experience.”² To be sure, networks as a form of social organization are by no means exclusive to postmodernity, though their thematic prominence in discourses ranging from Internet journalism to post-Fordist management literature—both part of what has come to be regarded as an entire...

  9. Afterword Are Aesthetic Models the Best Way to Talk About the Artfulness of Literary Texts?
    (pp. 393-404)

    My strongest response to this book is surprise mixed with considerable admiration. These essays are strikingly inventive in exploring such a variety of possible uses for the aesthetic in relation to concerns shaped by social and political life. I am grateful to the authors for bringing such intelligence and energy to a topic that I had long abandoned as hopelessly vague and abstract. But I am still not convinced that discourses on the “aesthetic” can be very useful for literary work, especially for the novel, which has a long and troubled relation with its own artifactuality. (Cultivating intricate internal relationships...

  10. Contributors
    (pp. 405-410)
  11. Index
    (pp. 411-426)