Emerson, Whitman, and the politics of representation

Jay Alan Grossman, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation proposes that the issue of representation lies at the heart of political and literary practice in the United States during the period between the Constitutional Convention and the Civil War. It explores the links between three distinct but related arenas within which the concept of representation functions: the political realm of "democratic representation"; the realm of literary/artistic production and mimesis; and, more recently, the realm of the canon and the designation of particular authors and texts as "representative." The project expands the range of texts by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman traditionally considered; it examines within the contexts of their initial production and circulation writings often deemed non-canonical ("non- representative"), including journals, newspaper editorials, and lectures. Chapter one, "The Rise of the Representational Arts in the United States," returns to the writings that framed the Constitutional Convention--The Federalist and the Anti-Federalist opposition--and works to de-naturalize our assumptions about the divisions between instrumental writing that "functions" in the world and "imaginative" literature of the type said to be produced by Emerson and Whitman. Both the second chapter, "Rethinking Emerson/Whitman," and the third, "Class Actions," restore to the early writings of Emerson and Whitman the material forms in which they first circulated; chapter two re-reads the texts that underwrite the Emerson/Whitman relationship as it has most commonly been understood, while chapter three contrasts the representational strategies and class dynamics encoded in Whitman's newspaper writings with those present in Emerson's contemporaneous lectures and journals. Emerson and Whitman are usually cited as participants in the American mode of (literary) idealism known as transcendentalism, and chapter four, "Representing Men," argues that enslaved bodies are the "direct objects" against which the movements toward transcendence in their writings often occur. If the previous chapters examine Emerson and Whitman in terms of their differences, this chapter links them at the site of the physical, though it also demonstrates the complicated and sometimes contradictory ways each engages the material world.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Grossman, Jay Alan, "Emerson, Whitman, and the politics of representation" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9308581.