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Tracing ideas of the sublime in American literature from Puritan writings to the postmodern epoch, Rob Wilson demonstrates that the North American landscape has been the ground for political as well as aesthetic transport. He takes a distinctly historical approach and explores the ways in which experiences of the American landscape instill desire for other kinds of vastness: self-expansion, national expansion, and American political power. As Wallace Stevens put it, the American will takes “dominion everywhere.”
Wilson sets the stage for his “genealogy” with a discussion of the classical notion of the sublime (taken primarily from Longinus) and the ways that notion was pragmatically transformed by its American setting and appropriated by American poets. He follows this transformation in successive chapters on the Puritans (Bradstreet) through the Naturalists (Livingston and Bryant), from the epitome of the American sublime (Whitman) to the greatest of the modernists (Stevens) and its present-day incarnations (Ashbery and others). Writing today under the sign of Hiroshima, contemporary writers must struggle with the concept of the sublime within a context of spiralling technologies and nuclear force that calls into question the long-standing American sacralization of power.
Throughout American Sublime, Wilson engages in an original theoretical inquiry into “the sublime” as term, topic, complex, and controversial idea in literary and critical history. Furthermore, he undertakes his historical study from an avowedly postmodern perspective, one that draws on and extends the work of Jameson, Lyotard, Foucault, Lentricchia, Harold Bloom, and others.
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As a poetic genre, the American sublime helped to produce the subject and site of American subjection as sublime. At least that will be one of my overall claims. Yet how does one stand, within a poststructural context of deconstruction and disbelief, to behold 'The American Sublime' as a communal construct of self and national empowerment that may never have been there except as a function of those vulgarly American contexts and beliefs?About the Author:
Wilson, a poet and scholar, is professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
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