Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
How can a literary theorist account for unselected texts and narratives, and measure the importance of voices no longer audible to readers today? The following dissertation uses various, and variously successful 19th century literary texts as a point of departure for considering the complex forces affecting the fragment of texts selected over time from within a wider field of anonymous and unwritten narratives.
Bridging literary theory and Darwinian science, "Evolutionary Landscapes" argues that concepts of mutation, replication and selection can provide a framework for thinking about how narratives and genre developed in the 19th century United States. Current attempts to bring biological insights directly into literary study through evolutionary psychology or cognitive Darwinism ignore the complex systems, including cultural and market forces, that might have been used to predict a given text's chances for longer-term survival. The figure I choose to represent these economic, unwritten, and cultural influences on literary texts is the "adaptive landscape" developed by the geneticist Sewall Wright, and recently adapted by the evolutionary theorist Michael Ruse.
The relationships between texts and ecologies fore-grounded in the following chapters, even when dealing with individual authors, necessitates looking at literature from the point of view of the random mutation and subsequent selection of texts in the face of a collectively determined ecology of formal expectations. My approach to the evolution of literature builds on the work of the literary critic Franco Moretti and the philosopher Daniel Dennett, although a turn to U.S. rather than British fiction casts a different light on literary evolution than that described yet by Moretti, and deals more specifically with questions of literary and cultural history than either Dennett's philosophy of memetics or Carroll's socio-biologically inflected Literary Darwinism alone would allow.
The 19th century literary ecology to which the fictions of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Edward Bellamy and Mary Wilkins Freeman were well or poorly adapted can be imagined as a kind of fitness landscape where literary publications are drawn towards the peaks climbed by previous writers, representing conventions or formula that proven successful in the past. A gradualist focus on textual silence and extinction within literary evolution, along with evolutionary and ecological theory, can provide abstract models to make visible the complex ecology of oral, cultural, written, printed and reprinted information that constitutes the "soft tissues" always missing from the archival past.
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Copyright 2010 Chad Allen Hines