"Tortured Shadows: Representations of Lynching in Modernist U.S. Poetry"

Welch, Milton Lamont, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, Department of English, University of Virginia

In "Tortured Shadows: Representations of Lynching in the Modernist U.S. Poetry," I examine the role of modernist lynching figures in U.S. poetry. These figures developed both in and apart from protest traditions of modernist poetry in the United States, and I emphasize both traditions as vital sites both for counter-articulations to the traumatic social impact of lynching and for resisting its ideological grounding. Without much political investment in the social question of lynchings, such poets as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound represent lynching while invoking anxieties about their own identities as poets. Among traditions of protest, poets stir readers to political activism by encoding in the representation of lynching strategies of active individual and communal resistance. I term this strategy of protest and conversion didactic. Modernist protest poetry is often didactic, offering instruction in order to convert readers into social activism. Rather than appeals to social identity in protesting lynching, this protest poetry comes to depend on affective figures of lynch victims, figures, that is, of emotional identification.

This study analyzes modernist lynching figures in non-protest poetry, but is chiefly a literary history of the evolving strategies of protest involving modernist lynching figures in poetry. This history spans the origins of this protest in the poems of Frances E. W. Harper down through the protest work of Jewish, socialist, and black poets. I argue that modernist lynching figures embody social critiques of lynching and strategies of resistance to its traumatizing force. I open and close this study with examples drawn from outside the protest tradition because I argue throughout that the evolving modernist lynching figure of the protest tradition resonates with the static modernist lynching figure from outside the protest tradition.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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