Truth Operative: Romanticism and the Rhetoric of Enchantment

Dubreuil, Jessie Beall, Department of English, University of Virginia
McGann, Jerome, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia

Truth Operative: Romanticism and the Rhetoric of Enchantment "Truth Operative" offers two interlocking arguments about the instrumentality of illusion in the rhetorical and linguistic operations of story. First, it re-contextualizes Coleridge's Romantic dictum regarding "the willing suspension of disbelief" to incorporate fully the productive disillusionment incurred in imaginative literature by interruption, fragmentation, and authorial self-revelation. Second, it articulates the subsequent nineteenthand twentieth-century narrative tradition that performs its truth claims, as Poe says of allegory, "by dint of revealing a fiction." I read credulous absorption and skeptical attention as equally necessary to understanding the literary acts words perform. In order to discern Coleridge's complex double-legacy in Edgar Allan Poe's hard-to-characterize hoaxes and Laura Riding's marginalized modernism, I oppose storytelling's mechanics of concealment to its literal and figurative self-revelations in overt surface artifice. In particular, I show how the prose experiments of each of these poet-critics place the Romantic ideal of poetic faith in dialogue with the narrative structure through which that faith operates. Fundamental to this study is the conviction that the act of telling, from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria to Poe's Eureka and Riding's Progress of Stories, asserts and exemplifies practical criteria for critical thought. The poet-critic in whom I am interested instructs readers against the intoxications of a too-easy literary enchantment. By tracing the suspension of disbelief-and its corollary, the suspension of beliefthrough examples in Romantic and modern craft, I emphasize the formal constructions of story's mystifications and highlight the rhetorical mechanisms of these authors' serious, and productive, literary play. Beginning by iv complicating our received knowledge about Coleridge's construction of poetic faith, I suggest a different interpretation of the uses of illusion whereby experimentally and pedagogically deployed fictional statements present an alternative formulation of the tasks of narrative and descriptive technique. The textual breakage and arrest that signal the crisis of faith in fiction also act as the emblem of story's critical self-consciousness.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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