An ecocritical study of William Carlos Williams, James Agee, and Stephen Crane by way of the visual arts
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My dissertation addresses the ways in which formal aesthetic strategies in literature and art in the period of modernism, approximately 1890-1940, make visible, and problematize the relation between language and environment. Stephen Crane (1871- 1900), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), and James Agee (1909-1955) avail themselves of contemporary, avant-garde visual arts and artists toward expressing the modernist collapse of faith in the adequacy of representation. Concomitantly, their writings articulate a post-Enlightenment empirical but anti-rationalist and a post- Enlightenment anti-romantic conviction that language is not divorced from but is already part of the existing furniture of the world. I locate this conviction in a Franciscan philosophical and epistemological tradition, one that scholars have duly remarked upon but with characteristic omission of its rich ecological tenets. For Crane and Williams, the existing and extensive contextual inquiry of the influence of the visual arts provides by way of analogy a useful terminology for exploring this early and high modernist writer’s aesthetic ambitions. My work contributes to and extends the contextual inquiry by addressing the ways in which Crane’s and Williams’s responses to the visual and graphic viii arts evidence not only the modernist grappling with the problem of representation per se but the confrontation with representation as this concerns the writing of the non-human subject-object figure by the human subject-object figure. The first chapters of the dissertation focus on the ecological avatar of St. Francis, and on Williams’s responses to cubist, precisionist, and dada art, and the quasi-landscapes of the High Renaissance Northern European painter Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). The final chapter looks back to the late nineteenth century, to impressionist painting and Stephen Crane, a writer who borrows from this painting the antithetical devices of flatness and atmosphere in ways that put into question normative distinctions between the human subject being and the non-human, so-called object being. The subject of the middle, sixth chapter is straight photography as this representational realist practice critically informs Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I argue that Agee’s encomium to, and excoriation of straight photography, a formidable tool of twenties and thirties documentary expression, implicitly ecocritically attacks the anthropocentric lens.