Modernism's History of the Earth

Miller, Megan A. Modernism’s History of the Earth. 2012. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation explores how a handful of modernist poets and novelists responded creatively to developments in geology, evolutionary biology, and astronomy between the 1920s and the 1960s. Critical accounts of modernism often treat early twentieth-century depictions of nature as quaint expressions of writers' personal interests, or belated rehearsals of romanticism or naturalism. Reading modernist literature alongside early twentieth-century scientific nonfiction, I argue that nature was implicated at every level of these writers' aesthetic responses to modern experience. William Carlos Williams' poetics of things grew out of his understanding of natural history. James Agee's documentary ethics drew on the timescale of evolution and the enormity of the universe. Lorine Niedecker and Kenneth Rexroth revised their poetics and their conceptions of place after learning about local geology. Aldous Huxley, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Smithson used the figure of islands to channel midcentury anxieties about the fate of an expanding human population and the ambivalence of progress.

Scientific paradigms were changing in these years: Darwinian evolution returned to the forefront of biological thought between the 1920s and the 1940s, and its reception was matched by widespread public interest in the origins and prehuman history of the earth. In the 1950s and 1960s, the exploration of outer space brought new awareness of our isolation in the cosmos. Nineteenth-century writers may have weathered the initial shock of our simian ancestry and the ungodly timescale of geology, but twentieth-century writers encountered a much fuller picture of what existed before humanity, and outside the bubble of our small planet. The writers I discuss here embraced that picture. The way they imagined the earth's history not only shaped their sense of what it meant to be modern; it shaped their sense of what it meant to be human, and conscious, and alive at any juncture of time and space.

Status of Research or Work: 
Research Type: