Developing hypotheses : evolutions in the poetics of Whitman and Melville

McGinnis, Eileen Mary
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In the foundational scholarship on literature and evolution, there remains a tendency to focus on Darwinian evolution's influence on Victorian literature. Without ignoring Darwin's importance to both the late-19th century and our own time, this dissertation contributes to an emerging interest among historians and literary scholars in exploring the pre-Darwinian, transatlantic contexts of evolutionary discourse. By returning to a time when 'the development hypothesis' was a more fluid concept, we can examine how writers and poets on both sides of the Atlantic were able to actively shape its meanings and to use it as a framework for reflecting on their literary craft. In this dissertation, I argue that for Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, development is a key term in their particular constructions of a distinctive American literature in the 1840s and '50s. It underlies Whitman's conception of an experimental poetic voice in the 1855 Leaves of Grass as well as Melville's ambitions for literary narrative in Mardi and Moby-Dick. At the same time, the sweep of their careers well beyond the publication of Origin of Species in 1859---into the last decade of the nineteenth century---allows us to chart their later responses as evolution increasingly gained acceptance and Darwin became a front man of sorts for evolution. Although Whitman and Melville continue to incorporate evolution and scientific modernity into their late-career self-fashioning, we can trace a movement toward increasing distance, disillusionment, and abstraction in these deployments. This dissertation has implications not only for contemporary Whitman and Melville studies but also for re-assessing the broader trajectory of 19th-century American literary history. In conventional textbook accounts, the influence of Darwinian evolution is measured primarily in terms of the emergence of literary naturalism, a realist genre known for its unsparing look at lives caught in the scope of unsympathetic natural forces. Here, I suggest that developmental evolution offered alternative formal and epistemological possibilities for mid-19th-century American literature, enabling Whitman and Melville to develop hypotheses about literary truth and human value.