My Research Interests
Inquiry is at the heart of academic research. In my own research, my inquiry tends toward an exploration of how literature interrelates with the fullness of human experience. Literature performs an important, unique function of suggesting through the medium of language the traces of a breadth of human experience that thwarts complete representation. Those traces include the voices of those whose experiences have been marginalized. Those traces include the richness of an experience framed within the context of a particular historical milieu that may no longer pertain today. Those traces include our non-discursive experience of the mundane details of our daily lives. My own developed position is that even if all the resources of language and culture were exhausted in the effort to represent any one individual’s experience, some unutterable overabundance would remain. I am interested in how literature addresses the boundary between that overabundance and language. My ongoing inquiry is an activity that includes communicating what can be known but also considering how literature supports the felt resonance of that which remains beyond knowing, beyond saying.
My research explores how language suggests the fullness of human experience from multiple angles. While doing so, my work tends to be textually driven yet theoretically informed—connecting close readings to psychoanalytic and philosophical concepts. I have particular interest and experience in the following research areas:
- African American literature, especially narratives of enslavement
- American poetry, especially Walt Whitman’s work and modernist poetry
- Modernism as a trans-Atlantic movement
- Twentieth century novels
My work has led to an acquired expertise in the works of William Cowper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison, Ezra Pound, Edith Wharton, H.D., Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.
A Shared Performance: The Age of Innocence and The Shaughraun’s Ribbon-Kissing Scene
Edith Wharton Review, vol. 34, no. 2, 2018, pp. 124–45.
The intertextual dialogue between the ribbon-kissing scene included in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Dion Boucicault’s two versions of The Shaughraun (as he wrote it and directed it) reveals an underexplored dimension of the relationship between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Drawing on Søren Kierkegaard’s work, I argue that the conventions of this intertextual scene frame their mutual performance of an implicit angst confined within the constrained social code of the novel’s 1870s New York elite. Boucicault’s original play did not include the unspoken moment, but he added it to capture his audience’s interest. The scene presents the attraction between a respectable Englishman and an outlandish Irish woman, with their separation being a consequence of their duties to others, providing a sense of emotional wavering on the edge of dishonor. After both Newland and Ellen connect their relationship to the scene, they repeatedly model it throughout the novel. The conventions of this scene provide a frame for an emotional experience keyed to their social milieu. From this perspective, Newland’s retreat at the novel’s end may be part of a shared performance with Ellen necessary to realize in the present the angst that would otherwise be lost to memory and history.
Between the Sublime and the Traumatic: Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 57, no. 2, 2021, pp. 165–202.
This essay explores the slave sublime as interconnecting the sublime and the traumatic along two dimensions of relation to the violence of enslavement: security and “afterwardness.” The sublime depends upon security, a point made clear by comparing Jacobs’ position to that of William Cowper (abolitionist and poet) and to her own audience. The consequence is a splitting, along the color line, with Jacobs’ traumatic experience moderated to serve the demands of supporting a sublime experience for her readers. The much later Beloved exploits its afterwardness for a needed conceptual reframing of insidious violence. Considering the slave sublime, I argue, can include contemplation of enslavement along both dimensions—security and afterwardness—while noting how displacement from the direct and immediate experience of enslavement’s violence aids reflection. Doing so permits considering how particular examples of the slave sublime—including Incidents and Beloved—operate concurrently along both dimensions. Through its presentation of what Paul Gilroy calls the “slave sublime,” part of the necessary work Morrison’s text performs, I argue, is to evoke the resonance of a traumatic experience filtered to silence even as Jacobs speaks.
American Eidolons: Saying, Not Knowing the Immanent Sublime Poetics of William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and H.D.
Western Michigan University, 2021
Committee: Charles Altieri, Elizabeth Bradburn, Todd Kuchta, Scott Slawinski (Chair)
This study explores a distinction Ralph Waldo Emerson makes between “The Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” in “The Poet” (1844) through the triadic framework of Jacques Lacan’s The Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. More specifically, this study considers how a poet may perform an important function as a “sayer” in relation to the Real (the fullness of experience that cannot be integrated into our systems of representation) by registering in language traces of that which exceeds the resources of the Symbolic and the Imaginary to present.
The initial consideration, in part one of this three-part dissertation, is on the pragmatic pressures that can drive a poet toward such an attentiveness to the Real. The textual focus of part one is on the early work of William Carlos Williams, especially from his “Postlude” (1914) to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920). Williams would be driven toward an attentiveness to the Real through his ambition to say something new, beyond the work of his early poetry (which bears the heavy mark of his influences).
In part two, this study considers how Walt Whitman and Williams each present forms of “projection” in the sense that the Real (which cannot be fully represented) is suggested through an emphasis on either the Imaginary or the Symbolic. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) presents a projection of the American Real that emphasizes the Imaginary (Lacan’s term for the interpersonal pressures of identity and ideology). Williams’ Paterson (1946–58) also presents various projections of the Real in relation to the physical and cultural objects of his attention as well as the activity of his poetic imagination. Instead of the Imaginary, however, Williams emphasizes the Symbolic (Lacan’s term for a system of related differences that includes language).
In part three, this study provides a final example of a poet’s projection in relation to the Real by considering H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (1961). Rather than toward the Imaginary or the Symbolic, H.D. uses a highly referential web of associations structured through the Imaginary and the Symbolic in order to project toward the Real. This Imaginary/Symbolic web consists of the myriad narratives of Helen of Troy that exist, with the Real Helen being that Helen for whom the cultural resources supporting her representation do not yet exist. This final example of Real projection underscores the important function poets perform as “sayers”: the Real Helen is a Helen who confounds an academic act of knowing but presents an important opportunity for a poet’s act of saying that which resists full representation. The dynamics of how literary “knowers” and literary “sayers” interrelate across all three Lacanian modalities—the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real—can be a limitless source of literature’s enduring value.
“Confined to a Sublime Object: Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” 2019 NeMLA Convention.
“Teaching Critical Thinking: Examining Climate Science and Denial.” 2018 NCTE Convention.
“From Dante’s Inferno to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Usury, the Law, and Loopholes.” 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2017.
“Gun Control and the Second Amendment Right to Bear Arms.” National Association of Legal Professionals, NALS of Michigan, Civil Rights Seminar, 2013.
Works in Progress
“Marcia Nardi and the Language of Experience.” An article on the little-known poetry of Marcia Nardi, with special attention to Nardi’s aim of finding poetic language capable of reflecting a modern woman’s experience.
Edith Wharton Collation Project. A project comparing versions of Edith Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree (1907) to assist Dr. Katherine Joslin’s work on her upcoming Oxford UP scholarly edition of the novel.
“Jean Toomer’s Cane, the ‘Black Atlantic,’ and the Meaning of Modernism.” A transatlantic study focusing on texts of the African diaspora and the “Atlantic” as understood in terms of the history and practice of enslaving persons.