The Wonders of Calculation in Nineteenth-Century American Experience and Literature

Kinzinger, Stephanie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Emily, Department of English, University of Virginia

In the nineteenth century, there was a burgeoning interest in what sociologist Max Weber calls “master[ing] all things by calculation,” or in other words, the ability and desire to analyze one’s surroundings. Instead of passively accepting what he or she saw as an innate part of the world or as a product of magic, an observer endeavored to understand its structure and how it worked. This paper examines the nuances of a “calculable world,” or a demagified world, through case studies of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), and of P.T. Barnum’s exhibits, especially “The Feejee Mermaid” and “The Whale” (1842) by observing how audiences reacted to their hoaxing works, and what those reactions reveal about the potentially problematic malleability of a supposedly calculable reality. Finally, it analyzes how Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) probe the wavering divide between a magical and demagified reality, as well as the practice of calculation itself.

MA (Master of Arts)
Edgar Allan Poe, Hoax, P.T. Barnum, Demagification, Humbug, Herman Melville, Nineteenth-Century America
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