Deborah L. Madsen (editor). 2007. American Aesthetics. SPELL 20.

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Table of Contents


Introduction                                                                               11


Philipp Schweighauser (Göttingen)

Literature in Transition: European Aesthetics and the Early

American Novel                                                                                     29


Claude Ziltener (Basel)

The Death-Hymn of the Perfect Tree: Metaphor, Metamorphosis

and the Sublimity of Music in R. W. Emerson’s Poems

“Woodnotes I & II”                                                                   47


Henrik Otterberg (Gothenberg)

Immanence and Transcendence in Thoreau’s “A Winter Walk”        69


François Specq (Lyon)

Henry David Thoreau’s Journal or the Aesthetics of Spacing             83


Patrick H. Vincent (Neuchâtel)

Thoreau, Rousseau and the Aesthetics of Romantic Taxonomy        97


Jerusha McCormack (University College Dublin)

American Decadence: A New Field for Research                        109


Agnieszka Soltysik (Lausanne)

Poe’s Aesthetics and American Modernism                                 127


Francesca de Lucia (Oxford)

Making America: The Narrative Aesthetics of the Early Italian

American Novel                                                                                  145



Hartwig Isernhagen (Basel)

Aesthetics of Violence / Violence of Aesthetics: Some Remarks

on the Cultural Work of Aesthetics and Practices of Aestheticiza-

tion in Late Twentieth-Century American Civilization                     161


Martin Heusser (Zurich)

Et in Arcadia Ego: The Pastoral Aesthetics of Suburbia in

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides                                             175


Franziska Gygax (Basel)

The Aesthetics of Illness: Narratives as Empowerment                  191 


Thomas Austenfeld (Fribourg)

Only Sensations Remain: The Hypertrophy of the Aesthetic in

Philip Roth’s Everyman                                                               207


Christina Ljungberg (Zurich)

Urban Aesthetics: Movement as Performative Utterance              223


Notes on Contributors                                                               233


Index of Names                                                                                  237


Literature in Transition: European Aesthetics

and the Early American Novel



Philipp Schweighauser



This paper seeks to account for the strangely double nature of the early American novel. For twenty-first-century readers, novels such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple or Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland seem firmly embedded in a premodern culture that subordinates the rights of art under those of religion, morality, and education. In their persistent didacticism, their claims to truthfulness and social utility, and their long authorial digressions, these texts perform those kinds of heteronomous functions Romantic theorizing and literary practice of the early nineteenth century would seek to reject in their quest for literary autonomy. Yet a closer look at early American novels also reveals elements of modern artistic practice that exist side by side with premodern residues. Brackenridge, for instance, repeatedly insists that his work is but an exercise in style devoid of ideas, praises originality and the figure of the genius, consistently privileges form over subject matter, and ridicules the excessive didacticism of his contemporaries. In such passages, we can see a modern consciousness at work. Tensions between these modern impulses and a premodern sensibility pervade both early novels and aesthetics, another invention of the eighteenth century. This paper discusses those tensions from a systems-theoretical perspective.

The Death-Hymn of the Perfect Tree: Metaphor, Metamorphosis and the Sublimity of Music in R. W. Emerson’s Poems “Woodnotes I & II”



Claude Ziltener



In his essay “Experience” Emerson observes that “[w]e live amid surfaces,” and that “the true art of life is to skate well on them.” The realization that often we cannot penetrate the physical appearances of things in order to reach a metaphysical realm of ideas was deeply unsettling for Emerson whose ambition it was to interpret the visible changes of the present as the apocalyptic sign of an invisible future order. Emerson identifies this gap between the mind and the world with the fall from paradise which can only be overcome by the intellectual revelations of the genius-poet. In this paper I will argue that the motif of the fall is a rhetorical device which helps to solve the tensions between the apocalyptic depths of the intellect and the post-apocalyptic aesthetics of surfaces. According to an apocalyptic interpretation the fall promises a return to the eternal presence of nature which, however, is rendered problematic by the discrepancy between imagination and expression. In contrast, a post-apocalyptic reading interprets the fall as the moment when the imaginative union between narrator and reader is disrupted by the experience of narrative discontinuity. What remains open to debate is the question whether or not this moment of narrative crisis increases our faith in the trans-human spirit which, Emerson tells us, “communicates without speech.” My discussion of the motif of the fall is embedded in a larger discourse on aesthetics opened up by Kant’s interpretation of the sublime as the apocalypse of the mind in the Third Critique on the one hand, and de Man’s interpretation of the Kantian sublime as a post-apocalyptic, linguistic event on the other.

Immanence and Transcendence in Thoreau’s

“A Winter Walk”



Henrik Otterberg



While several studies to date have tracked Thoreau’s influences from scientists both professional and amateur – Goethe, Humboldt and Agassiz among them – and above all related them to his “mature” writings of the 1850s and later, I wish to discuss some relevant aspects of his early nature essay “A Winter Walk” (1843). Consensus would have it that Thoreau here evinces little more than an Emersonian and hence Transcendentalist frame of mind, rejecting outright formal science: what Thoreau elsewhere called “the Baconian.” Close reading of Thoreau’s early essay, however, arguably reveals a fledgling openness to formal, positivist inquiry – and more fundamentally an interest in nature as primarily presenting an immanent order, regardless of the idealist philosophy brought to bear upon it.

Henry David Thoreau’s Journal

or the Aesthetics of Spacing



François Specq



Henry David Thoreau kept a singular sort of journal. Far from keeping an intimate diary devoted to analyzing the twists and turns of individual personality, the author of Walden considered it his sole purpose, it seems, to explore the nature of the area surrounding Concord, Massachusetts. Maintained with admirable energy and steadfastness during 25 years of adult life – from 1837 to 1861 – his Journal actually possesses an uncommon dimension far exceeding its geographical and thematic limits. The interrogation of the same place patiently undertaken day after day, the resulting density, the methodical mining of reality, clearly prove that Thoreau’s object is not the knowledge of nature as such, but an ontological and existential confrontation with the world.

Thoreau, Rousseau and the Aesthetics
of Romantic Taxonomy



Patrick H. Vincent



Henry David Thoreau’s interest in botany comes at the end of an intense century of taxonomic activity bracketed by Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae in 1758 and Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. This interest suggests a desire to bypass Emersonian idealism in order to redirect aesthetics toward the empirical world. Thinking through the contradictions between essentialism and nominalism already contained in taxonomy gives Thoreau the critical insight he needs to circumvent the Romantic confusion of mind and world we see in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings on botany, while at the same time escaping from what Michel Foucault has described in Les mots et les choses as the lifelessness of Enlightenment science.

American Decadence:
A New Field for Research



Jerusha McCormack



Over the last thirty years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the English 1890s as a decade during which artists branded as “decadent” revolted against the values of late Victorianism to usher in the new aesthetics of modernism. Yet little or no attention has been paid to a cognate development in America – ironic since the great modernists, such as Pound and Eliot, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens – were literally grounded in the American 1890s. In America this was expressed less as a coherent movement than as an aesthetic shift that in many ways resembled the syndrome of English “decadence.” Oscar Wilde’s visit to America in 1881 provided a rallying point for the incipient aesthetic movement, particularly in East Coast America. After his return to America, Wilde took on much of the resident American painter J. M. Whistler’s aestheticism and turned it, by a kind of psychic ju-jitzu, into a public weapon with which to satirize the middle class. Meanwhile in New England – that home of the Puritan – Ralph Ellis Cram (1863 – 1942) initiated new aesthetic standards in the architecture of Gothic revivalist churches such as St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue in New York. Identified as part of “Boston Bohemia,” Cram became the centre of an artistic circle which included the poets Richard Hovey, Bliss Cameron and Louise Guiney, the book designer Bernard Goodhue, and the photographer Fred Holland Day who discovered, in turn, Khalil Gibran. Given its wide range of influence and espousal of “decadent” values as a way of asserting aristocratic style against a rising tide of vulgarity, Cram’s circle offers a useful focus for analyzing the new aesthetic values of the American 1890s which were instrumental in ushering in artistic modernity.

Poe’s Aesthetics and

American Modernism



Agnieszka Soltysik



This paper will explore some of the ways unexamined assumptions about gender can inform criticism and aesthetic judgement. My focus will be on Edgar Allan Poe and the way in which hostility or suspicion about the value of his work is often couched in the language of psychosexual normativity. For example, Eliot describes his writing as “puerile” and “slipshod,” James describes Poe as lacking in seriousness and fit for people at a “primitive” stage of reflection, and Aldous Huxley describes Poe’s poetry as the textual equivalent of “wearing rings on every finger.” My point of departure then is the observation that these male modernists appear to be reacting to what they perceive as a failed performance of masculinity, defined implicitly as maturity, dignity, and above all, self-mastery.  I will use the example of Poe as a point of entry into the question of modernist aesthetics in general and the gender politics that inform them in the context of American literature. A corollary concern will be the New Criticism and its reconfiguration of German and French modern aesthetic theory into the cultural context of early twentieth century America (the period in which negative critical reception of Poe peaked).

Making America: The Narrative Aesthetics of

the Early Italian American Novel



Francesca de Lucia



This paper investigates the development of the Italian American novel in the 1930s, illustrating how novelists of Italian descent combined in their works elements of their ancestral culture with those of the mainstream environment. I intend to use two key authors as case studies: Pietro di Donato and John Fante. Both display the traits of early twentieth-century tradition of the immigrant novel as well as specifically Italian American motifs and the influence of the wider literary trends of the time. While Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini! are different in terms of style and narrative tone, they also present a certain number of similarities, since they both focus on the growth of the second generation individual and offer a detailed psychological and social portrayal of the Southern Italian immigrant family. From this point of view, these texts bear the influence of what Michael Denning has defined as the “ghetto pastoral,” that is, an insider’s perspective of the immigrant milieu that became a widespread literary form in the 1920s and 1930s. In this context, they can also be considered as developments of the genre of the Depression-era proletarian novel, exemplified by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. More specifically, Christ in Concrete and Wait Until Spring, Bandini! express the central Italian American founding myth, which sees the Italian immigrant contemporarily as a divine fabricator of the New World and as a Christ-like martyr. These two contrasting aspects derive, as suggested by Robert Viscusi, respectively from the legendary part played by Italian explorers such as Columbus and Vespucci and by the situation of oppression and marginalization endured by Italian immigrants in the United States. The study of these different narrative strands allows the observation of the development of the Italian American novel as a hybrid cultural product, encompassing disparate literary trends.

Aesthetics of Violence / Violence of Aesthetics: Some Remarks on the Cultural Work of Aesthetics and Practices of Aestheticization in Late Twentieth-Century American Civilization



Hartwig Isernhagen



The generalizing statement that “American culture is violent” recurs in everyday and not-so-everyday discourse in the US. Its scope is broad: from Schumpeterian reflections on creative destruction to comments on the widening gap between rich and poor to legitimations of imperialist habits of mind and action. It is only to be expected that in this climate of self-reflection the theorization of power that was central to so much thinking in the last third of the twentieth century would take on characteristic shapes that deserve comment. One such shape is the aestheticization of “American violence.” This essay will briefly sketch the historical background of associations between the American and power-as-violence that comprises items as diverse as the postulate of a specifically American sublime and allusions to an imperial classicism that are pervasive in United States architecture. It will focus on the recurrence, in dominant forms of late twentieth-century American literary and cultural criticism, of a mental gesture or habitus that culturalizes, verbalizes, and finally aestheticizes power. It will, in this manner, find in them an “aesthetics of violence” that goes far beyond what is normally discussed under that heading. This is to say, too, that it will not accept the frequently promulgated reading of the period in question as being characterized by a “sociological approach” that constitutes a “loss of aesthetics.” (If we do currently have a “recovery of the aesthetic,” we have it in a different, very restricted sense.) This essay will also argue that such aestheticization is in itself an instance of social and cultural violence – epistemologically, in so far as it elides crucial ontological borders, such as (notably) that between material and non-material violence, and thus also sociologically, ideologically, and politically (ultimately, perhaps, morally), in so far as it obscures the kinds, loci and pathways of specific forms of power and thereby creates what we would formerly have called false consciousness.

Et in Arcadia Ego: The Pastoral Aesthetics of Suburbia in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides



Martin Heusser



Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides, I will be arguing, is essentially a pastoral – suburbia being Arcadia and the memory of the deceased girls the yearning for the Golden Age. As in the paintings by Guercino and Poussin “Et in Arcadia ego” refers to the intrusion of death into the unreally idyllic bourgeois life of postwar American suburbia. The Latin motto, and with this Eugenides’ social critique, is both memento mori and elegiac meditation. It describes, in other words, a society whose only “real” contact with reality is death, a society which is unable to face basic ontological questions and which is forever stalled in the meditation of an irretrievably lost beautiful past. Characteristically, escape seems the only way to deal with life for the overwhelming majority of the characters in the novel: for the five Lisbon girls who flee into death, for their parents who move away, and for the we-narrator(s) with their obsessive concern with the (re-)construction of the truth about the Lisbon sisters – in the teeth of the realization that they will “never find the pieces to put them back together.”

The Aesthetics of Illness: Narratives as Empowerment



Franziska Gygax



In the recent past a great number of autobiographical accounts on life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or AIDS have appeared. These so-called autopathographies frequently deal with the autobiographer’s attempt at creating some sense of time and/or sequence, and, if possible, with the search for a new order, reason, and sense of life. Stories about illness in particular demonstrate the way we create meaning through narrative because the experience of such a life-threatening illness calls for a (re)construction of our vulnerable self. In my paper I would like to explore some challenging ways in which autobiographical texts about the experience of cancer and AIDS can be called intriguing aesthetic projects because they often use highly unconventional narrative structures to express the suffering, pain, and anxiety. I will focus on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s short narratives “Queer and Now” and “White Glasses” (1993), Nikki Giovanni’s short text “A Deer in Headlights” (2002) and Christina Middlebrook’s Seeing the Crab: A Memoir of Dying Before I Do (1996). The paper will discuss the aesthetics of the personal narrative and relate it to the cultural and social implications of illness.

Only Sensations Remain: The Hypertrophy of the Aesthetic in Philip Roth’s Everyman



Thomas Austenfeld



Conventional American understandings of aesthetics are put to the test in Philip Roth’s short 2006 novel Everyman. As Roth describes the process of ageing, he increasingly depersonalizes – and correspondingly universalizes – his subject matter, ultimately suggesting that aesthetics has to do less with the value judgments of beauty and more with the life-affirming sensory perception of the world in general. Roth’s literary predecessors, the great medieval drama Everyman and the early modernist Jedermann by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, are allegories of faith which preach the ultimate rejection of the earthly life of the senses in exchange for receiving the unearned grace and goodness of the Christian God in extremis. Roth’s novel, by contrast, is the story of a secularized Jew who declares religion “a lie” (51). The text must necessarily derive its elegiac force not from the Christian hope for the afterlife but instead from an insistent celebration of the aesthetic and a constant awareness of its fleeting nature. Roth’s unnamed Everyman dwells in the world knowing that only aesthetic perception may assign meaning to the individual human being. The life of Roth’s Everyman becomes co-extensive with his ability to employ his senses.  Following an epigraph that pays homage to that great celebrator of aesthetic indulgence, John Keats, the novel dwells at length on the protagonist’s childhood fear of anesthesia (lit.: an-aesthesia, the absence of sense perception). It logically concludes as the character’s sense perceptions end. Roth’s Everyman thus develops the hypertrophy of the aesthetic, raising questions about the limitations of literature in attempting to transcend the merely aesthetic realm. The text’s insistent descriptions of various illnesses – hernia, appendicitis, migraine, occluded arteries, enlarged prostates, etc. – make readers question both the ultimate validity of sense perceptions and the limits of universalizing human fates. Everyman is an advertising executive, an amateur painter, a swimmer, a serial monogamist, a man afraid of death for his entire life.  Roth examines these roles within a framework of allusions to American literary history, ultimately forcing us to reexamine the reliability and endurance of our senses.

Urban Aesthetics:

Movement as Performative Utterance



Christina Ljungberg



How can we begin to understand what a city is and means? First and foremost, in terms of its dynamism, vitality, thus its movement, its activity. As Michel de Certeau points out, a city is  the irrepressible movement and gestures of innumerable actors caught up in potentially intersecting dramas. This movement and these gestures allow us to see streets and other urban sites not as the abstract forms mapped by urban planners but as facilitators of movement, involvement, interaction, and participation – in a word, space in its most pregnant sense. A city is not an abstract place, but a human space – not a map of purely formal possibilities, but an ongoing remapping of reconfigured actualizations. This is what I will attempt to explore, with the help of Certeau’s notion of cities as a set of practices and (in particular) the act of walking as having the status of utterances, actualizations and implications of the “pedestrian speech act”, to see how this is manifested in Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and City of Glass.


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