Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Art of Transgression
Transgression: the crossing of a boundary or limit—by extension, the violation of a taboo. Transgression of this sort is ultimately a two-way activity. On the one hand, from inside a well-bounded space, a set of regulations and rules, or a presumed social identity, a transgressive figure breaks through ostensible limits, as when Edna Pontellier in The Awakening transgresses socially prescribed limitations of gender, or when Whitman transgresses limitations conventionally imposed on poetic language as he has inherited it. On the other hand, boundaries can be transgressed from without, as when Santa Claus in A Visit from Saint Nicholas invades the world of middle class, bourgeois domesticity from an alternative universe of the supernatural functioning with its own set of rules. If boundaries, limits, and horizons hedge in the sense of possibility, this is to imply that they entail curtailments of what in various ways is opened up by varieties of transgression. Freedom (ostensibly valued but often repressed throughout American society) is at issue. This course is based on the proposition that in a manner that has little to do with the freedom of voting for one’s favorite candidate, an ongoing interplay between transgressive and well-bounded consciousness, as it takes place in the poems, novels, and tales of nineteenth-century America, is where “freedom” in the deepest sense remains a living issue, and is either cultivated or betrayed. At issue, let me emphasize, is not freedom to run wild in the streets and to proclaim anarchy and total misrule, but to extend the boundaries of community and culture in ways which are open to fresher, more inclusive, and more venturesome frameworks of order.
Background theorists will include Raymond Williams on hegemony, Bakhtin and Geoffrey Harpham on the grotesque, Mary Douglas on what we can learn from what society dismisses as dirt and waste, and Witold Gombrowicz on the aesthetic subversion of prevailing codes and norms. Primary readings will range across a spectrum nineteenth-century American texts; these will include readings in Poe, Whittier, Clement Moore, Margaret Fuller, Whitman, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, Rebecca Harding Davis, Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.