Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Joan Richardson

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Literature in English, North America


materialism, nineteenth century, phrenology, Walt Whitman


A Chant of Dilation analyzes Walt Whitman's poetic engagement with two very modern ideas: the materiality of the mind and the discursive nature of science. During the antebellum period these ideas found expression in the popular science of phrenology, the theory that the mind was divided into various faculties physically located in different parts of the brain. This theory would find a ready audience in Whitman, a poet preoccupied with the body, the soul, and their connection. The writings and publications of premier American phrenologists Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, surveyed in this project, rhetorically mediated emerging conceptions of the brain-embodied self by exploring the relationship between religion and materialism. Phrenology also provided Whitman and its many followers with an empowering sense of self-knowledge based on its rich vocabulary of dozens of mental faculties. At the same time, by equating mind and brain and claiming the existence of innate, inheritable faculties, phrenology raised the possibility of biological determinism, unsettling seemingly essential beliefs in the soul, agency, and moral responsibility. In Whitman's correspondingly complex deployments of phrenological terms and themes, the poet embraces, confronts, and answers the implications of a material mind through the means most readily available to him as a poet: metaphor, ambiguity, and the performative use of language. By situating Whitman's response to phrenology alongside a number of Romantic and post-Romantic intellectuals similarly occupied by its language, including Georg Friedrich Hegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and William James, I demonstrate its hitherto overlooked cultural significance as a discourse that prompted philosophical concerns about the relationship between science, language, and the mind.