Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning.
Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences.
The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
Each temporal sequence (specifically, in language) has its own structure and dynamics, but the beginning and the ending may be said to be universally important or significant points within such a sequence. They constitute the boundaries, or frame, of the literary text, separating it—and the world it projects—from the world around us, thus playing an important role in determining its basic shape.
Locating the textual point of beginning is often somewhat complex or problematic (typically more so than that of the ending), because, at least since the advent of the print era and the book format, the “main” text is accompanied—or surrounded—by other materials collectively known as paratexts (e.g., titles, epigraphs, various kinds of prefaces) and may be likened to a threshold through which the reader gradually passes from the “outside” to the “inside” of a text. Considered as a threshold, one of the beginning’s most important potential functions is to “draw us in,” or be seductive and help carry us over from the world we inhabit to the world the author has imagined. The beginning is also particularly important in creating a primacy effect, setting off our mind in a certain direction and thereby influencing our entire reception of the work. We may make a broad distinction between “orientational” and “abrupt” textual beginnings—the latter type confronting the reader with an ongoing action—without supplying preliminary information necessary for its understanding. Historically, such beginnings became widespread from the late 19th century, with the transition from realism to modernism. A phenomenon that is particularly intriguing in the context of narrative beginnings is that of the exposition, since by definition it always constitutes the beginning of the mimetic or actional sequence but is not necessarily located at the beginning of the textual sequence. Moreover, the point of transition between the exposition and the primary narrative action (or fictive present) may be considered as another kind of “beginning,” which plays an important role in how the narrative is perceived as a whole.
Delimiting the ending as a textual unit involves a fundamental issue of a different kind than those relevant to beginnings: since the ending follows everything else in the text, it is difficult to consider it without considering through it, so to speak, the text as a whole. The understanding and appreciation of endings depend to a large extent on what has preceded them. But at the same time they tend to play an important role in retrospectively shaping it and often have a lasting impact on its evaluation. The critical study of the ending has paid a good deal of attention to closure, so much so that there is a widespread tendency to conflate the two concepts; it is important, however, to differentiate between them. Whereas ending refers to the text’s termination point, closure refers to the sense of an ending: that is, not to the textual termination point itself but rather to a certain effect, or perceptual quality, produced by the text. The common distinction between “closed” and “open” endings is quite crude in its basic form and should be regarded as a finely gradated and multidimensional continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. Broadly speaking, endings that tend toward the open end of the continuum are typical of modern literature (and heavily valorized by modern criticism), and like “abrupt” beginnings they testify to a desire not to accentuate the boundaries of the work of art.
The modern concept of authorship evolved in parallel with the legal recognition of the author as the subject of certain property rights within the marketplace for books. Such a market was initially regulated by a system of printing privileges, which was replaced by copyright laws at the juncture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The inclusion of copyright under the umbrella of property and the dominating economic discourse marked the naissance of a new figure of the author, namely, the author as supplier of intellectual labor to the benefit of society at large. In this sense, products of authorship became fully fledged commodities to be exchanged in the global marketplace.
Focusing on the transition between the privilege and the copyright systems, and the prevailing economic rationale for the protection of works of authorship, leads to a more original understanding of authorship as rooted in the human need for reciprocal communication for the sake of truth. Modern authorship, being grounded in a narrow utilitarian understanding of authors’ rights, is detached from both the economic logic of the privilege system and the rational foundation of copyright.
Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices.
But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.
Theresa A. Kulbaga
Asian American autobiographical writing about immigration—from the earliest available examples to the contemporary experiments with genre and form—does not tell a straightforward story. Rather, Asian American autobiographies trouble the sustaining myths of American exceptionalism, the American dream, meritocracy, and belonging and therefore challenge narratives of immigrant striving and success.
Immigrant narratives examined in this essay by Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong, Kathleen Tamagawa, Carlos Bulosan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kao Kaila Yang, and Shailja Patel, among others, show the contested and constructed quality of national borders. They show that the nation has always been constructed transnationally, through relationships with other countries and cultures and flows of migration that exceed straightforward definition. Examining narratives from various historical periods and cultural traditions brings into view the connections and contradictions among them and shows how each text intervenes in immigration discourse and exercises autobiographical agency.
Rather than straightforward stories, then, Asian American autobiographical narratives illuminate the various entanglements of self-representation, family, identity, and agency with imperialism, racialization, nationalism, and global capitalism. Nor does autobiographical writing merely document experience or history. Instead, it actively constructs self, identity, and nation even as it draws on the culturally available narratives that enable and constrain the stories writers tell about their lives. As it does so, it creates new, unstraightfoward narratives and forms.
Though the 19th century witnessed the creation of new nations throughout the Americas, late-19th-century Latina/o writing in many respects defies national borders and boundaries. From exiles and immigrants to conquered populations living within the ever-expanding reach of the United States, Latinas/os in the latter part of the century often invoked a transnational and hemispheric perspective in their writing that reflected the border-crossing scope of their experience.
From New Orleans to New York to New Mexico, late-19th-century Latina/o writing comprises a heterogeneous archive that is geographically, linguistically, politically, and culturally diverse. Though many texts continued to be written in Spanish, some texts in English began to emerge. The authors of these texts came from a wide variety of racial and class backgrounds, in some cases pursuing cross-racial and cross-class alliances via their writings while in other cases defending their claims to an upper-class white racial identity. Despite this diversity, by the end of the century Latina/o writers of all backgrounds were increasingly subject to marginalization as racialized others within mainstream US society.
Many Latina/o texts from this period have been recovered from archives, edited, and republished for contemporary audiences. Scholars of this literature are necessarily involved in the recovery of texts that have been overlooked in private, regional, university, and national archives throughout the Americas. The deep fragmentation of this body of work speaks to the border-crossing nature of late-19th-century Latina/o writing, as well as to the dynamism of a field whose objects of study are constantly expanding and consequently shifting the terrain of what such writing might mean.
Jesús F. de la Teja
Juan Nepomuceno Seguín (1806–1890) was the leading Mexican-Texan military figure of the Texas Revolution (1835–1836) to participate on the Texas side of the struggle. He was the only Mexican Texan to serve in the Senate of the Republic of Texas and was the last Mexican Texan to serve as mayor of San Antonio until the 1980s. Having fled to Mexico to avoid violence at the hands of enemies he made during his tenure as mayor, he commanded an auxiliary cavalry company of fellow Mexican-Texan exiles in the Mexican army until the end of the US-Mexico War. During his effort to reestablish himself in Texas in the 1850s he wrote his memoirs of the Texas Revolution. He was one of only three Mexican Texans to do so, and the only one to have them published during his lifetime. Seguín returned to Mexico on the eve of the US Civil War to participate in Mexico’s civil conflicts. In about 1870 he permanently settled in Nuevo Laredo, where he died in 1890.
Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio
As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.