Date of Degree

6-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Joan Richardson

Committee Members

Wayne Koestenbaum

Joshua Wilner

Subject Categories

Literature in English, North America

Keywords

Friendship, American Pragmistism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, Susan Howe, Phenomenology of Reading

Abstract

“Very Two, Very One: Reading as Friendship” embarks upon what the American philosopher John Dewey might describe as an act of “cultivated naïveté” by asking the reader to imagine that one of the study of literature’s highest goods is the feeling of friendship that it can inspire between the studious reader and the multivalent text. This dissertation proposes that our readerly interactions with texts have many of the same interpersonal complexities and satisfactions of lived friendship, and the chapters that follow will offer a vocabulary for describing those complex interactions in ways that allow us to speak, write, and think seriously about our affections for texts. In part, this dissertation reacts against our entrenched disciplinary adherence to a hermeneutics of suspicion, which continues to dominate literature classrooms and literary scholarship. In proposing an alternative, I am responding to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s call for reparative reading models. Instead of a practice of interrogating texts, I offer examples of and language for how to live well with texts: how to engage them curiously and lovingly, with respect for their difficulties and ambiguities, and with an eye toward the role that texts play in our unfolding senses of ourselves. Though reading as friendship need not be exclusive to any specific period or geography, my articulation of it is grounded in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Friendship.” In particular, I have used this text as a way of tracing an example of friendship between the sacred writings of one of Emerson’s predecessors, the Calvinist minister Jonathan Edwards, and the contemporary poetry of one of Emerson’s inheritors, the American experimental poet Susan Howe. Between the textual pillars of Edwards, Emerson, and Howe, I explore friendship as a literary practice that emerges in the act of conversation, the happy experience of being “found” in language, the important role that skepticism plays in the development of intimate friendship, and the sacred feeling of connection that friendship inspires. Woven throughout these chapters are the indispensable insights and provocations of thinkers representing the American pragmatist tradition—William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and indirectly, Stanley Cavell—who have reminded me to seek out the “cash value” of these ideas. What difference would it make, the pragmatists ask, to the field of literary studies and to our personal experiences of reading, to center the role of friendship in the development of original thinking?

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