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Aesthetic experience in the culture of professionalism, 1890–1925

Eric Fortier, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation elaborates an American pragmatist aesthetic tradition that anticipates recent "turns" in cultural studies to aesthetics and affect. Although a commitment to the nondiscursive ends of art is most explicitly voiced by pragmatist philosophers, I emphasize fiction writers who likewise argue that what most matters in art is our immediately felt, inarticulate experience of an artwork rather than anything we can say about it. These writers celebrated the nondiscursive character of aesthetic experience as a critique of an emerging culture of professionalism that, they felt, reduced aesthetic experience to linguistic meaning and thereby consolidated the authority of the professional middle class over rural, poor, and immigrant Americans. While these writers were critics of the culture of professionalism, they were also its products and participants, and they registered their dual commitments in images of bifurcated consciousness, most famous of which is W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of a racial "double-consciousness" endemic to the African American. Here double consciousness serves as a metaphor for the tension between professional discourse and nondiscursive aesthetic experience. Each chapter explores a different valence of this metaphor, illustrating it through analysis of a fictional work. The protagonists in these works are encountered at crises in their professional careers, and their dual commitments to discourse and nondiscourse are dramatized in their encounters with artworks. Chapter 1 argues that a dual commitment to the analytic and the vague in William James's The Principles of Psychology and Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet" reflects these brothers' ambivalence toward a late-nineteenth-century aestheticism that insisted on art's "uselessness." Chapter 2 demonstrates that Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware negotiates a double consciousness prompted by the nineteenth-century "warfare" between science and theology. Chapter 3 examines the role that a racialized difference between "white" words and "black" music assumed during the Jim Crow era, as demonstrated in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Chapter 4 demonstrates that Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark mitigates a tension between art's functions as escapism and as propaganda by sketching a model of American cultural nationalism rooted in "primitive" nondiscursivity.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature|Aesthetics

Recommended Citation

Fortier, Eric, "Aesthetic experience in the culture of professionalism, 1890–1925" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3556246.