This dissertation challenges the longstanding assumption that visuality in American literature of the nineteenth century through early modernism was inherently imperialistic, possessive, and theological. I acknowledge the critical force of readings that impose unified narratives of the “American eye” as an epistemological tool for clearing the wilderness, generating a representative national subject, and ushering in a Puritanical millennium by “fore-seeing” the completion of Western civilization and culture in America. But I show that critiques of the possessive “gaze” were already developing in the literature of the period by writers (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Henry James) exposed to contemporaneous developments in visual art and technology. Each chapter traces a tension in these writers’ works between imperial gazes and subtle glances, specifically as they adapt their writing practices over time to account for new visual subjectivities—embodied, relational, and open to change—generated by early photography and motion picture studies, experiments in Impressionism, new techniques in the art of portraiture, and the dawn of cinema.
This dissertation is a co-winner of the 2017-2018 Heilman Dissertation Prize offered by the UW Department of English.