Reading between the lies: Liminal consciousness in American literature
AdvisorDryden, Edgar A.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis study posits reading as a trope for meaning-construction and considers the thematized act of reading in American literature as a self-reflective phenomenon that reveals, questions, and complicates the state of America's cultural consciousness in and through literature. Against the institutionalized New Critical practice of explicating texts in a vacuum, the paradigmatic shift in recent decades to contextualized modes of criticism has promoted a performance-oriented view of textuality that immerses texts in a number of problematic relations with the past and with social reality. This "new" perception of reading has been with us all along, I suggest, and my study is an attempt to recuperate the major writers of the American Renaissance for the ongoing work of revisionist scholarship. The canonical writers of the mid-nineteenth century recognize an unstable view of textuality endemic to the American cultural imagination, and indeed centralize its destabilizing effects in their work. The struggle to find and maintain meaning in such a milieu largely informs Melville's ideas about reading, as I describe in Chapter Two, and it also becomes a compelling way to consider American identity and culture in terms of process rather than product. In Chapters Three and Four, I address Whitman and Dickinson as two particularly influential figures who discover, challenge, and even attempt to harness the liminal power from which a process-oriented conception of identity arises. In their ambitious attempts to achieve a freedom of the imagination, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson consciously and unconsciously construct and reflect the American will to freedom. Their liminal conception of reading reveals a liminal sense of being, both of which extend to the present day as a primary trait of American literature and of American cultural consciousness. My concluding chapter considers the implications of a culture based on liminality and arrives at the hard fact that America is doomed by its own dream. The endless American mission to make possible in both fiction and reality the impossible experience of pure freedom inevitably leads to dislocation, frustration, and meaninglessness, as our most powerful and lasting literature consistently illustrates.
Degree ProgramGraduate College