Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Lowell E. Folsom
This dissertation examines the way the work of two nineteenth-century American authors, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, borrowed from, challenged, and even worked to support prevailing cultural attitudes, conventions, and ideas regarding death, mourning and memorializing as they produced their poems and tales, articulated their thoughts regarding the purpose and act of producing and reading literature, and designed their material book or magazine objects. Using both new historicist and book studies methodologies, it exposes how these writers drew upon literary, ritual, and material practices of this culture, and how, in turn, this culture provided an interpretive framework for understanding such work.
In its initial three chapters, which focus largely on Edgar Allan Poe, this dissertation revisits Poe's aesthetic philosophies ("The Poetic Principle" and "The Philosophy of Composition"), much of his most notable Gothic work (such as "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven"), readers' responses to this work, and his own attempts or designs to mass-produce his personal script (in "A Chapter on Autography," "Anastatic Printing," and his cover for The Stylus) in order to revise our understanding of his relationship to this culture and its literary work, exposing a more sympathetic and less subversive relationship than is usually assumed. It illumines how Poe's aesthetic philosophies were aligned with those that undergird many of the contemporary mourning objects of the day, how his otherwise Gothic and macabre literature nevertheless served rather conventional and even recuperative ends by exposing the necessity of and inviting readers to participate in culturally sanctioned acts of mourning, and how he sought to confirm the harmony between his work and more conventional "consolation" or mourning literature by actively seeking to bring that work (and the "self" that produced it) visibly before his readership in a medium that this culture held was a reliable indicator of the nature and intent of both that work and its producer - namely his own personal script.
In its latter three chapters, this dissertation illuminates Whitman's own extensive use of mourning and memorial conventions in his work, disclosing the way his 1855 Leaves of Grass relied, in both its literary and physical construction, upon the conventions of mourning and memorial literature, detailing the way his 1865 book of Civil War poetry Drum-Taps sought to unite a national body politic by creating a poetic and material text capable of allowing a grieving public readership to reconnect with and successfully mourn their dead, and how his 1876 Two Rivulets, overtly conceived of as a memorial volume, made use of the conventions associated with mourning and memorializing to bring readers to a more democratic understanding of "self" that Whitman believed would transform America into the democratic utopia it was destined to become.
In revealing the way in which these authors' works reflect and reflect upon this culture, its ideologies, rituals, and practices, the dissertation also illumines an otherwise critically underexplored connection between these two writers. It details the influence of Poe's work on Whitman's poetic project, and borrows from Whitman's critical response to Poe in order to recast our understanding of Poe's literature in the manner detailed above. Thus, this dissertation offers new interpretations of some of the period's most canonical literature, alters our thinking about the relationship of these authors to each other and to nineteenth-century sentimental culture, and, finally, exposes a curious interdependence between Gothic and more transcendental literature that has implications not only for reading the work of Whitman and Poe, but for interpreting these literatures more generally.
Copyright 2010 Adam Cunliffe Bradford
Bradford, Adam Cunliffe. "Communities of death: Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and the nineteenth-century American culture of mourning and memorializing." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2010.