"An Aligned, Transformed, Constructed World": Representing Material Environments in American Literature 1835-1945

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Title: "An Aligned, Transformed, Constructed World": Representing Material Environments in American Literature 1835-1945
Author: Sexton, Melissa
Abstract: This dissertation seeks to avoid two extremes that have polarized literary debate: on the one hand, a strong constructivism that reduces environments to textual effects; and, on the other hand, a strong realism that elides language's constructive power, assuming texts' mimetic transparency. Positioning itself within the ecocritical attempt to reconnect text and environment, my project articulates a constructive vision of material representation that I call "constrained realism." Katherine L. Hayles's "constrained constructivism" emphasizes the constructed nature of scientific knowledge while asserting science's truth; conversely, "constrained realism" re-emphasizes the material real's influence on literature while acknowledging representation's limitations. My project adapts Bruno Latour's work in science studies to literary texts, reconceiving written representation as a dynamic process of human/material interaction. My reassessment of literary materiality extends to both canonical and neglected American texts that address representational anxieties about materiality. First, I examine how the work of Henry David Thoreau presents the relation between a material world and written text as actively constructed and mutually constituted, a relationship that necessitates Thoreau's self-reflexive engagement with language. A similar dynamic between material observation and skepticism about language informs Frank Norris's
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1794/12431
Date: 2012


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