The one-drop aesthetic: How literary formalism reinvented race in the United States

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-06-05 02:02Z by Steven

The one-drop aesthetic: How literary formalism reinvented race in the United States

Harvard University
233 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3365201
ISBN: 9781109254617

Kevin Brian Birmingham

A dissertation presented by Kevin Brian Birmingham to The Department of English in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the subject of English.

The One-Drop Aesthetic argues that late twentieth-century theories of race and identity are translations of the early twentieth century’s aesthetic formalism, the New Criticism. The first cohesive formalism in the United States was an aesthetic ideology shaped by the imperfections of the South, which the southern New Critics took as a social model for their aesthetic ideals. They imagined literature not as a solid structure or an organic wholeness but as a welter of contingencies—a terrain that, like the South, was besieged by science and industry and whose beauty resided in fragments and ashes. The New Criticism was largely a dialogue between Allen Tate’s faith in transcendent wholeness and Ransom’s attention to art’s “infinite residue.”

The southern institution capable of relating fragments to organic wholes as well as bringing the idealized past into the industrialized present was, perhaps surprisingly, the cornerstone of segregation: the one-drop rule. A guiding principle of American race ideology was the belief that a trace of blackness is powerful enough to constitute blackness itself . Though it was a powerful weapon of oppression, several American writers in the twentieth century turned the implications of the one-drop rule into aesthetic virtues. Abiding, contaminating racial traces provided not only a model for cultural continuity over time and for imagining parts as transcendent wholes, but it intensified the complexity of W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness, a modern American version of both Hegel’s self-consciousness and Friedrich Schiller’s aesthetics.

This project covers a fifty-year period from the New Criticism of the 1930s to the New Mestiza of the 1980s. Several writers used the idea of overwhelming racial traces to reframe the European aesthetic ideals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in immediate social terms. William Faulkner’s powerful imagination of the one-drop aesthetic in his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! was foundational, and the unlikely inheritor of Faulkner was James Baldwin, who amplifies Faulkner’s race-based apocalyptic mode in his essays. This dissertation then turns to the central importance of the racially-mixed Schwarzkommando in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). It ends with a discussion of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), which provides yet another vision of a lost aesthetic society recoverable from traces of both memory and blood.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter One – Hellenic Dixie: The Soil of American Formalism
  • Chapter Two – The Master/Trash Dialectic: William Faulkner and the Origin of an American Aesthetic
  • Chapter Three – “History’s Ass Pocket”: The Bind of Identity and Aesthetics in James Baldwin
  • Chapter Four – Revolutionaries of the Trace: Thomas Pynchon’s Schwarzkommando and the One-Drop Sublime
  • Chapter Five – Gods Out of Entrails: The Old Aesthetic of the New Mestiza
  • Works Cited

Purchase the dissertation here.

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