American callings : humanitarian selfhood in American literature from Reconstruction to the American century
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In "American Callings" I argue that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American literature dealing with cross-cultural humanitarianism contains a strand that sought to rectify the potentially oppressive shortcomings of humanitarian practice. The authors whose work I examine--novelists William Dean Howells and Albion Tourgeé, reformer Jane Addams, humorist George Ade, and memoirists Mary Fee and George Freer--grappled in their writing with two reciprocal questions. First, they meditated on how humanitarianism shapes, changes, and constitutes the self. Second, they theorized how increased self-awareness and self-criticism might help the humanitarian actor avoid the pitfalls of humanitarian practice that critics, in their time and ours, have seized upon. "American Callings" thus challenges three critiques that have been instrumental to American literary studies for decades: critiques of sentimental humanitarianism's complicity in projects of cultural domination, realism's investment in the status quo, and reform's role in maintaining social discipline through surveillance. The dissertation disputes the prevalent assertion that literature dealing with cross-cultural humanitarianism constitutes a sentimental, imperialistic, and ultimately violent discourse. I accomplish this by looking to instances of what Gregory Eiselein (1996) has called "eccentric" reform, efforts articulated from within a culture but in opposition to certain aspects of it. Drawing on narratives of what I call "humanitarian selfhood" in three historical contexts--industrializing urban centers in the North, the South during Reconstruction, and the Philippines during the U.S. occupation--"American Callings" traces an "eccentric" literary genealogy, one that offers up the humanitarian dynamic as a heuristic wherein the humanitarian agent arrives at a new kind of self-understanding by way of wrestling with the questions raised by service to others. The literature written by and about these humanitarians, I suggest, then provides an opportunity for readers to be transformed, as well.
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