Wednesday, 05 December 2007

Get Out Your Red Pencils: a Dissertation Abstract Awaits For those curious as to what literary historicists do (Anthony) and those convinced I do absolutely nothing at all (Emerson), I present my dissertation abstract. Behold! Everything I've slaved over lo these many years, condensed into five paragraphs ... thereby ensuring that what I've written makes absolutely no sense. See, I've been over this thing so many times—made so many piddling changes, emphasizing so many stakes here, dropping so many arguments there—I can no longer read the words before me. I don't know what they mean. So invested am I in the history of its revisions—the agonizing decision to delete this, the writhing that accompanied the diminishment of that—I'm unable to judge whether it even makes any sense. Are the stakes of my argument apparent? Can you tell how necessary my corrective is to the health of the discipline? Does it even make any sense? (Note: The final version of my dissertation contains a chapter on Twain which is, at the present moment, too excreable to include in the abstract. Also, my fifty-five page intellectual history of evolutionary theory at the turn of the last century will likely become my first chapter, thus necessitating the writing of an introduction which resembles my abstract and, you know, talks about literature.) Maximal Diversity Non-Darwinian Evolutionary Theory in Realist and Naturalist Fiction, 1895-1910 “Maximal Diversity” examines the influence of applied evolutionary theory on American literary realism and naturalism. Arguing against the tradition of literary critics who, following Richard Hofstadter, consider “social Darwinism” the ascendant evolutionary influence on fin de siècle literary and popular culture, I demonstrate how the continued presence of non-Darwinian evolutionary theories informed popular opinion about evolution and manifests in the works of writers traditionally interpreted in light of Darwinian notions like “survival of the fittest.” Writers like Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Jack London, and Silas Weir Mitchell have long been thought to traffic in the deterministic evolutionism Hofstadter presented in Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944). Intended to justify interventionist New Deal social policy, Hofstadter’s account of the influence of applied Darwinism ignores what Stephen Jay Gould calls the period’s “maximal agnosticism and diversity in evolutionary theories”: Edward Drinker Cope’s kinetogenesis, Theodor Eimer’s orthogenesis, and James Mark Baldwin’s organic selection may be forgotten today, but as the twentieth century began, their Lamarckian accounts of development were as, if not more, reputable than their Darwinian counterparts. Whig historians of the Darwinian Revolution, publishing after the establishment of the Modern Synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s, applied to the development of Darwinian theory the very thing the theory itself denies: a teleological and linear progressivism. Literary scholars followed suit. In 1957, Sherwood Cummings could approvingly cite Hofstadter as an authority, as he did in “Mark Twain’s Social Darwinism.” When historians like Richard Bannister and Peter Bowler began revealing Hofstadter’s selection bias in the 1980s, literary scholars should again have followed suit. They did not. Journals as prestigious as American Literature continue print articles asserting “for a long cultural moment at the turn...

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