Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Guy J. Rotella
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Department or Academic Unit
College of Arts and Sciences. English Department.
Aesthetics, Back Street, Let Us Know Praise Famous Men, Quicksand, Talking to the Moon, political rights of objects and people
English Language and Literature
In the first part of the twentieth century three interconnected modernist trends, primitivism, consumerism, and nationalism, imagined the inclusion of new persons in the national polity through their engagement with what I call "objects of emancipation." In such modernist imaginings, "quasi (legal) persons," to use Bruno Latour's idea, could become New Women, New Negroes, or New (and "civilized") Americans through their intimacy with empowering objects such as consumer products, keepsakes, cultural artifacts, commodified natural resources, and even waste. Such person-thing fabrications were central, in my view, to modernist politics and aesthetics, and I argue that literary genres often considered to be nonmodernist (including the bildungsroman and the documentary) were particularly important vessels for debates about things and persons. Specifically, my work explores how Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), Fannie Hurst's Back Street (1931), James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), and John Joseph Mathews' Talking to the Moon (1945) challenged the promise of personification-through-objects using generic conventions associated with both progress and material culture. I argue, however, that rather than simply attacking objectification as a negative, dehumanizing process, Hurst, Mathews, Larsen, and Agee and Evans examined how race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, as well as class, placed limits on the liberatory reifications of persons. They also recognized the multiple possibilities that different forms of reification could offer. Far from glorifying progress or naively recording the material world, then, their modernist bildungsromans and documentaries participated in the complicated reconceptualization of the political rights of humans and objects that took place from the late 1920s through the late 1940s
Musiol, Hanna, ""Objects of Emancipation": The political dreams of modernism" (2011). English Dissertations. Paper 9. http://hdl.handle.net/2047/d20001026
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