Date of Award

2012

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Abstract

"Cruel Sorority, or, Feminizing Enjoyment in American Romance" analyzes the often-overlooked anti-social figures and affects found on the margins of American Romanticism. Symptomatically registering dissatisfaction and rage at the foreclosure of democratic possibility and public life, these feminized figures represent violent reactions against the dominant disciplinary institutions (e.g. marriage, motherhood, domesticity, slavery) that impoverish their lives. In keeping with the rich imaginative possibilities within the romance genre but often exceeding and redefining these conventions, these figures break with the reformist/inclusive logic that pervades works of the period. This project participates in recent critical discussions in American studies that deal with issues of being and (un)belonging, civility and anti-sociality, and what has been called the affective turn in literary studies. The thrust of the critical work of this period can be described as "reparative criticism," to use Eve Sedgwick's term. While influenced by the impulse to repair or make good on the unfulfilled promises of democracy, this project freeze frames instances when antebellum authors question whether or not a complete overhaul of the social model might not be more desirable. To this end, the project examines intractable feminized figures that resist the channeling of democracy's radical potential away from public and collective forms of being and belonging. As I argue throughout the chapters, the turning of public into private results in symptomatic outbursts affectively recorded in texts generically affiliated to the romance genre (convent tales, plantation, domestic, and gothic novels). Through close readings of canonical and non-canonical texts, I analyze feminized figures whose antisocial acts work against the reformist main logic of the narratives. The figures at the center of this project over-identify with the very symptoms dominant culture encourages them to repress in order to obtain a "healthy" sociality. That is to say, instead of subscribing to femininity's strategies for turning disadvantages into advantages, like the transformation of aggression into delicacy, the inculcation of familial duty, and the idealization of motherhood, to name a few, the project looks at figures and texts at odds with the matrix of identity and reform dominant in the period. From the infanticidal nuns of Maria Monk's convent tale and Harriet Beecher Stowe's sadistic slave Cassy, to Nathaniel Hawthorne's petulant, "unwanted" daughters in The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter and Elizabeth Stoddard's cruel and imperious Cassandra Morgeson, this project traces the erratic resistance to the foreclosure of public space and collective life in antebellum America. In keeping with romance's transformative vision, the antisocial strain I identify in these texts holds, in the eclipse of self and world that often defines them, the potential for bringing into being social realities not yet imagined.

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