This dissertation is about the emergence of the mistake as a pivotal figurative device in American literature and civic life. Accidents, anomalies and anachronisms of various kinds figure in the study, which argues that mistakes were idealized in American culture because they were seen as the harbingers of chance, risk and improvisation to everyday life. Particularly interesting is the way artists began to solicit mistakes, believing that a disaster could lend to ordinary experience the heightened and excited sense of being more typically associated with art. Mistakes ushered into the American imagination an uneven world of unexpected opportunities beyond the stasis of familial and biological determinism, endowing lived experience with the character and charm of aesthetic experience.
The project further investigates the mistake as a method of literary history, using jarring juxtapositions to create unusual constellations of artists. There are three fulcrums of the mistake in American modernism: Henry James, Mina Loy, and Alain Locke. Each experiments with a different kind of mistake: James in opposing the “committed mistake” to the vita activa, Loy in glamour as anomaly, and Locke in the anachronism of race. Clustered around James, Loy and Locke are other artists of the Emersonian tradition whose radical skepticism of philosophical and institutional systems also caused them to solicit mistakes. Many of them, such as Loy, Locke and Greta Garbo, do not conform to conventional expectations about literary intellectuals of the period. Others whom I align with the American tradition are not technically “American”: Giovanni Papini, Marie Curie, Gaudier Bzreska. What holds these figures together, besides surprising historical connections obfuscated by the kind of systemic genealogies Emerson abhorred, was their commitment to an inventive form of irony dedicated to representing totally incommensurable realities juxtaposed and clashing with one another. Their constellation creates a mosaic providing what Kenneth Burke calls “perspective by incongruity,” where seeing one thing through the mirror of another highlights aspects of both otherwise invisible.