Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





John Brenkman

Committee Members

Mary Ann Caws

Wayne Koestenbaum

Subject Categories

Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority


Modernism, Deconstruction, Black Studies, Queer Theory, Race, Sexuality


“A Difference of One’s Own” demonstrates that deconstructive conceptions of race lie at the heart of the modernist canon’s experimental representations of selfhood. Drawing on recent and canonical scholarship in Modernist Studies, Black Studies, Deconstruction, Queer Theory, Critical Theory, and Feminist Studies, I look at moments in modernist-era literature where the need to represent racial blackness, whether as a descriptor that defines one’s self-identity or the identity of another person, fails to draw a coherent line of difference between people, communities, selves, and importantly, the literatures that are thought to adhere to hard and fast racial distinctions. “Part I: 1928” includes chapters on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, both published in 1928. In different yet overlapping ways, Woolf and Larsen will represent blackness as a decadent force that destabilizes the self, and with it, the concept of race as a supposedly immutable category of identity. Drawing on Sharon P. Holland’s notion of “the erotic life of racism” and Fred Moten’s conception of blackness as a “force of decay” in Western metaphysics, my chapter on Orlando underscores the panoply of black and brown figures that prompt Woolf to name “inky blackness” as the force behind Orlando’s transforming sense of embodied “race.” For Woolf, race is mutability, or, rather, the self’s ability to be remade by accepting and taking responsibility for what I call the gift of race. My chapter on Nella Larsen shows how Quicksand is in conversation with one of the most notorious novels of the “yellow” 1890s—Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. While both novels center on an anti-hero who is the subject of portraiture, they are linked more intimately by a post-nationalist discourse on racial and moral corruption that bears on Larsen’s decadent conception of “indistinguishable white” as a signifier for bi-racial blackness. For Larsen, biracial blackness not only disturbs the intractable White/black binary of the global Color Line. At its most extreme, blackness will override the Color Line, enfolding even whiteness into its multiplying articulations. “Part II: 1935” includes two chapters on American literary responses to fascist Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, and the subsequent plight of its sovereign, Haile Selassie. My chapter on Richard Bruce Nugent locates Nugent, and his underread response to the second Italo-Abyssinian conflict “Pope Pius the Only” (1937), at the center of the Harlem Renaissance’s crisis over “decadence” and the political viability of the “New Negro.” For Nugent, racial passing—that is, the ability of some black people to pass for white—undermines white supremacy’s taxonomic principle and, by extension, imperialist aims. At the same time, embodying such racial ambiguity throws the self into an irreconcilable flux. My chapter on Marianne Moore historicizes several poems in which Moore alludes to Haile Selassie—including “In Distrust of Merits” (1943), “His Shield” (1944), and “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” (1956)—within the context of the African American reception of the Ethiopian emperor, demonstrating how Moore’s first-person affirmations of black liberation index a modality of fugitive being in the world that was attuned to Haile Selassie’s function as a symbol of black sovereignty among African American communities. This chapter argues that Moore attempts to countersign articulations of black sovereignty in her poetry, an act of literary prosopopoeia that, while unable to avoid a certain risk of failure, nevertheless must be made in order to displace white supremacy. Taken together, these chapters explore how writers associated with one of the most compelling periods of Anglo-American literary history both refused, and to some extent reinforced, commonsense conceptions of race in their time. At the same time, they underscore the different ways in which “the self”—however we conceive of such a term—remains a potent, fraught, central, yet unstable experience without which modernity, and certainly modernism, would have melted into air.

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