The Dissertation is Finished!

Tree of Knowledge


I am now a Dr. and am inevitably facing the problem of explaining my research project. Below I have done my best to provide an accessible summary of my dissertation. Now that I am finished, my hope is to post here more regularly about future work and what I am reading and thinking about.

My dissertation “Meeting Places” presents a reconceptualization of the relationship between science and literature in the first half of the twentieth century. This historical moment was not a time in which the two became opposed, as is usually thought; instead, they coexisted and were in dialogue with one another. Borrowing the notion of a meeting place from the poet Muriel Rukeyser—one of the subjects of my dissertation—I delineate an imaginative space shared by scientists, philosophers, and poets concerned with the possibilities and dangers of technoscientific modernity. Exploring the literary side of this exchange, I present American literary modernism as engaged in a rethinking of history, agency, and sociality that continues, rather than opposes, contemporaneous efforts in the sciences. The writings of twentieth-century modernist authors—W.E.B. Du Bois, William Carlos Williams, and Muriel Rukeyser—worked to bring scientific discourses to the general American public by laying bare how science might serve as a progressive and imaginative force advancing the United States’ social democratic project. In the course of making those efforts, they also rethought the cultural force of science by calling attention to the poetic modality of the American scientific imagination.

As I show in my introduction, these modernist writers were influenced by nineteenth-century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as by turn-of-the-century and twentieth-century pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. They tamped down their predecessors’ Romanticism, though, in order to bring the literary imagination down to earth, where the scientific one operates. In a corresponding manner, they insisted upon the multiplicity of imaginative modes in the sciences. Ideational without being idealistic, pluralized rather than monolithic, these authors sought to further the country’s democratic project through their delineation of science and literature’s shared foundation in a common, often overlooked imaginative enterprise. This foundation emphasized chance and process and thus multiple opportunities for individuals to seize agency and freedom, rather than determinism and categorical logics that too often foreclose said agency and freedom or even result in systemic oppressions. In this schema, readers and the general public could become active participants in, rather than passive consumers or pupils of, aesthetic and scientific endeavors to transform lived conditions. At this critical juncture in the history of American modernity and modernization, in acknowledging a shared foundation in an active and co-participatory and unpredictable imagination, modernist poet and modern scientist might partner in the reshaping of the nation and invite their readers and the citizenry to take part.