The violent imagination : modernism in the American novel, 1850-1945

Vescio, Bryan Dean, Department of English, University of Virginia
Langbaum, Robert, Department of English, University of Virginia

Accounts of modernism based on the ideas of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot become problematic when they are applied to the American novel, so we need a new conception of modernism in general to account for its presence in the American novel. M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp identifies the shift in aesthetics from classicism to romanticism with a shift in metaphors used by poets and theorists to describe the imagination, and the same strategy may be used to account for the post-romantic movement called "modernism." The theories of Pound and Eliot only retreat to classical metaphors for the imagination, but an entirely new set of metaphors emerges in the theoretical writings of Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein. The violent metaphors these writers use to describe the imagination are analagous to those used to describe the mind in a post-Darwinian intellectual tradition which includes Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, and Sigmund Freud. Just as Nietzsche, James, and Freud naturalize the human mind, rejecting the metaphysical pretensions of philosophical idealists, so the modernist tradition of Stevens and Stein naturalizes the imagination, rejecting the metaphysical pretensions of romantic poets.

This alternative strain of modernism is especially evident in the American novel, since the development of this genre parallels the development. of post-Darwinian thought. Most importantly, the aesthetic innovations of American novelists are largely consequences of their conceptions of the imagination, which are most often expressed in violent metaphors. These metaphors begin to appear in the middle of the nineteenth century in the works of Herman Melville, and they are taken up by novelists like Mark Twain and Henry James. All these writers are also engaged in attempts to combine naturalism with symbolism, which Edmund Wilson identifies as the "modern element" in twentieth-century literature. Twentieth-century American novelists like Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and William Faulkner develop their more radical formal and stylistic experiments by rediscovering the resources already present in the nineteenth-century American novel, and particularly in the violent metaphors for the imagination used by Melville, Twain, and James.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

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