The White Symbolic: Aesthetic Radicalization in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

King, Wesley Robert, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, Department of English, University of Virginia

Whiteness pervades the literature of the mid-nineteenth-century United States: it is often used to mark the abstract and unfamiliar, or that which is presumed to be universal; it often signals discussions of the deepest problems of human experience. Rarely, though, is this literary whiteness directly presented as racial. The White Symbolic shows how the phenomenology of whiteness in the literature of the period was based in the aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime and associated ideas about sensibility, perception, and affect. It argues that nineteenth-century aesthetic discourses offered a means for organizing visible logics of color and the seemingly contradictory notions of equality and mastery into a racial order. While the project traces the production of aesthetic racialization from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, it focuses on writers of the middle decades-such as Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson-who with differing aims interrogated the dominant meanings of whiteness in the culture. The writers discussed in this study inherited and developed an aesthetic of whiteness that allowed them to represent ideas of common sensibility, the linguistic codes of racial hierarchy, and the affective registers implicated in ideologies of freedom and power. By the end of the eighteenth century, the psychic mechanisms involved in taste and judgment established both a discourse of universality and a means for articulating human difference. This dissertation situates nineteenth-century literature as responding to the ways aesthetics traditionally supplemented concepts of essential difference: whiteness is implicated in notions of spiritual and racial beauty and sublime mastery. It argues that aesthetic theory, which articulates affective investments in ii ideological and symbolic structures, offers tools for better understanding processes of cultural racialization.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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