Date

2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

English

First Adviser

Moglen, Seth

Abstract

This dissertation argues that 20th-century American poets share the presumption that intersecting histories of economic exploitation, racial inequality, and sexual domination had scarred the rural landscapes they loved. For decades, leading critics have tended to view the pastoral as an escapist, politically conservative genre pursued mainly by elites. In contrast, my project offers a fundamental revision of our understanding of the pastoral's ideology—showing it to be more radical, anti-idealizing, and darker than previously imagined. I bring together Robert Frost, who is perhaps the quintessential modernist pastoral poet, and two of the most innovative poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer and Helene Johnson, to demonstrate how writers from varied positions in the American social order all struggled to understand a relation to the natural world that had been permeated by violence and loss. Although these poets participate in pastoral celebrations of nature, their enactments give voice to shocking legacies of violence and their attendant negative emotions—such as fear, anxiety, anger, and grief. The result is a poignant tension in their representations of the natural world. In chapter one, I argue that Frost tried to manage a sense of responsibility to working-class people early in his career through nostalgic idealization and, later, through an increasingly angry realism by the years of the Great Depression. In the chapter on Johnson, I consider how the poet's eerily beautiful adaptations of the pastoral mode register the traumatic effects of racial violence and sexual exploitation even as they affirm the sensuous pleasures of the natural world. In chapter three, I argue that Toomer's celebration of a beloved southern landscape is shadowed by the problem of alienation produced by the rapid industrialization of agricultural labor and the much longer history of enslavement. As they mourned histories of violence, these poets and other practitioners of modernist pastoral—including William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Claude McKay, and Ron Rash—offered hard-won visions of a less-alienated connection to the natural world and rural labor on which every society depends.

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