Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

A distinctive equality: The democratic imagination in modern American poetry
by Redding, James Patrick, Ph.D., Yale University, 2010, 319; 3415351
Abstract (Summary)

Does democracy have a genre? U.S. writers have long thought so. Walt Whitman found its highest expression in lyric poetry: "One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse." My dissertation investigates how democratic representation poses distinct problems to lyric poetry, even as it acknowledges that historical processes mediate all concepts of "the lyric" as a genre. Scholars of modernism and American literature tend to discuss the relation of democracy to poetry in one of three ways: through a poet's form or language, in the appeal to a mass audience, or through analogies between representation in poetry and representation in politics. Departing from these approaches, my dissertation suggests that democratic beliefs have important psychological consequences that lyric poetry is particularly well suited to address. Lyric poems offer a non-narrative account of political subjectivity, drawing our attention to brief states of consciousness, instinctual responses, and intense feelings that are not reducible to a single style, audience, or subject matter. The poets of this study suggest that democracy affects the way we think and feel as much as how we act.

In the poetry of her early career, Marianne Moore demonstrates that a commitment to social equality is compatible with aesthetic discrimination so long as we know that "snobbishness is a stupidity" and "complexity is not a crime." While crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Hart Crane glimpses "Liberty" while learning "to walk through time with equal pride," thus forging a unique kind of solidarity with the poets of the past. For Wallace Stevens, the promise of democracy depends on the potential of the average person to pursue greatness, becoming "part, / Though an heroic part, of the commonal." Through turns of phrase such as these, Moore, Crane, and Stevens suggest that the qualities for which modernism has long been celebrated—its intellectual rigor, emotional complexity, and psychological nuance—may serve to enhance, rather than threaten or diminish, the life of a democratic culture.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Bromwich, David, Hammer, Langdon
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 71/08, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Modern literature, American literature
Keywords: Crane, Hart, Democracy, Modernism, Moore, Marianne, Poetry, Stevens, Wallace
Publication Number: 3415351
ISBN: 978-1-124-09164-8
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