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” (trees can talk; mind-reading is possible), can yet inform and effect our understanding of everyday life.

 

research on testimony & human rights

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.

 

Related essays:

On what it means for Melville to write a story, Benito Cereno, about muteness

On Emerson’s refusal to be explicit in his anti-slavery politics

 

research on psychology & personhood

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I am currently at work on a new book, The Story of Suggestion: American Literature and the Formation of Persons. The Story of Suggestion explains how the psychological phenomenon of suggestion was taken up by fiction writers from 1865-1930, producing both an important genre, the novel of consciousness, and a valuable literary vision of what it means to be a person. At the heart of studies of suggestion was an unsettling possibility: that persons are constituted by the mental and bodily influences of others. I argue that while psychologists left this idea unexplored, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and Edith Wharton examined, tested, and articulated it through narrative forms, ultimately writing a revolutionary account of personhood.

 

Recently written essays:

  • “Toward a New First Chapter in the History of Trauma: Narrating the Organic Body in 1860s America,” forthcoming in American Literature. Abstract: Scholars tracing the genealogy of trauma generally place its emergence in the 1870s, when the condition began to be conceptualized as a mental rather than physical injury, treatable through psychological measures. This essay locates a complicating earlier engagement. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Guardian Angel (1867), Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (1863), and Walt Whitman’s war entries in Specimen Days (from 1863) represent mental breakdown but propose a radically different therapy: the mind may be healed by acquiescing to the body’s physiological functions. This therapy is recommended in the course of narratives that are insistently conclusive, without the fragmentation usually assumed to distinguish representations of trauma. Thus, this essay challenges the premise that narratives of trauma formally resemble the condition’s broken mind, instead imagining how such texts may be analogized to the organic body.
  • “Newland Archer’s Doubled Consciousness: Wharton, Psychology, and Narrational Form,” forthcoming in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: New Centenary Essays, ed. Arielle Zibrak.  Abstract: Resisting the critical trend of psychologizing Wharton as a writer, this essay reads The Age of Innocence to claim her as a psychological thinker—indeed, a stylist—of her era. It argues that Wharton’s narrational form envisions a split between protagonist Newland’s self-aware consciousness, which speaks to himself, and a secondary consciousness, voiced by the third person narration, which interprets his sensations and perceptions for the reader. This vision of consciousness as doubled resonates strongly with the model of mind imagined in studies of somnambulism and hypnosis. Thus, the essay ultimately suggests that the narrational form known as free indirect discourse implies a vision of consciousness that psychology, as well as literary studies, imagines itself to have surpassed.

 

Related essays:

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.

 

 

 

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