Metempsychosis, Race, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
AuthorWalsh, Christine Michelle
AdvisorHurh, John P.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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EmbargoDissertation not available (per author's request)
AbstractIn this study, I argue that in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee (1836), Edgar Allan Poe’s “Morella,” (1835), “Ligeia” (1838), and “Eleonora” (1842), Herman Melville’s Confidence Man (1857), and Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899), the trope of metempsychosis—the supposed transmigration of the soul to another body at the time of death—complicates the process of sympathetic identification and marks its limits. These texts are therefore in dialogue and tension with sentimental fiction, a tradition premised on the capacity of sympathy to create connections between individuals. In the texts I study, however, metempsychosis uncovers the potentially oppressive mechanisms at work in sympathy, and attempts at identification results in disconnection rather than connection. Anticipating late twentieth and early twenty-first century criticisms, these texts reveal that sympathy is not only difficult for the sympathizer to attain and sustain but also perhaps damaging to the recipient, particularly when the sympathizer is white and the recipient is not. Counterintuitively, these texts critique sympathy and the process of identification through a concept that would seem to facilitate them, and their usage of metempsychosis emphasizes not the transcendence of the soul but the implications of embodiment, particularly for black bodies. Ultimately, the action of metempsychosis in these texts offers modes of relation premised on difference rather than commonality, and on not knowing rather than knowing—intellectual and ethical stances that are potentially useful for the twenty-first century and beyond.
Degree ProgramGraduate College