research

As a researcher, I seek to discover and explain models of human receptivity in nineteenth-century American literature. My aim is to understand how the premises of literature, which may refuse “common sense” (mind-reading is possible; trees can talk), can yet inform and effect our understanding of everyday life.

My book Quiet Testimony:  A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature was published by Fordham University Press in the fall of 2013.  Quiet Testimony begins from the cover artpremise that the word testimony circulated in that period in ways unfamiliar to us today, because inanimate entities as well as persons were understood as capable of bearing the truth.  What seems like a relic of an ancient mysticism, I demonstrate, was actually a pervasive framework of thought, one that conditioned what it meant to speak—and to speak out.  Once testimony is decoupled from human beings and language, power is shifted to a range of entities, from trees to weather to ghosts, and these come to demand attention and new patterns of thought from those who encounter them.  Such an expansion of testifying “subjects” serves, in my readings, both to clarify certain elements of nineteenth-century culture and to reorient our approaches to certain key questions of contemporary human rights scholarship.  I focus my study on four key figures—Emerson, Douglass, Melville, and Henry James—reading in each an unusual and provocative approach to testimony.  Emerson proposes testimony without representation; Douglass testimony without identity; Melville testimony without voice; and James testimony without life.  I conclude the book by considering how, despite their ability to think “without” certain apparent strongholds, their collective theory imagines a testimony rooted in plenitude.

Order Quiet Testimony on Amazon.

 

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I am currently at work on a new book, The Story of Suggestion: American Literature and the Formation of Persons. This project responds to a beguiling question: what constitutes a person? Literary studies has waged hefty critiques of personhood, associating the concept with identity politics and exclusionary privilege. But late nineteenth-century novels provide a different view. My book shows how the discourse of hypnosis, specifically its anxiety about how persons were individuated, shaped the emerging novel of consciousness in American literature. Persons in these texts are defined as products of suggestion or influence, formed by physical and mental interactions. The framework of suggestion resists the usual paradigm for critiques of personhood, which pits affect and impersonality against liberal individualism, and so can redirect our disciplinary discourse. Through archival research and close readings of novels by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, The Story of Suggestion offers a powerful new approach to what personhood means and how we can study it.

suggestion header

The masthead from a 1900s magazine focused on suggestion as therapy and phenomenon.

 

Selected publications

An essay on black dresses in Henry James and the theory of mourning they suggest appeared in Nineteenth-Century Literature.

Another piece on James demonstrates how his odd use of a phrase, “hang fire,” amalgamates characters with material objects.

An essay on belief in Henry James’s short story “Maud-Evelyn” appeared in American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron in 2014.

An article on muteness and testimony in Melville’s “Benito Cereno” appeared in the Arizona Quarterly in the summer of 2009.

 

 

All work on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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