Spectral substances of democracy: agency, affect, and power in American romance Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 21, 2019
  • Han, Kwangtaek
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Focusing on texts by Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, my dissertation traces the historical conditions that shaped their heterodox political ontologies and the challenge these ontologies posed to what their contemporaries considered the essential fulcrums of American democracy: autonomous agency, solidifying affect, and consensual power. These canonical authors capture the paradox that such principles are liable to impersonal, disruptive, and autocratic operations that preclude the actualization of American democracy. This liability, they reveal, is hardly perceived as threatening to American democracy since it is a necessary condition for sustaining a fantastical belief in American democracy as a consensual society of self-governing individuals sympathizing with others for the public good. The romancers dramatize the unrecognized, antidemocratic workings of agency, affect, and power in their works, written during the critical periods of nation-building (Brown), Jacksonian Democracy (Poe), the rise of abolitionist and feminist movements (Hawthorne), and the Secession crisis leading to the Civil War (Melville). Their romances divulge the profound paradox that personal autonomy, affective solidarity, and popular sovereignty are spectral substances--conceptually present yet empirically absent--that uphold the politico-ontological ground of American identity. These oxymoronic foundations of American existence, I argue, not only account for the enduring social desire and energy of American democracy, but also answer for its eventual impossibility. In the introduction, I define the three key concepts of my project--democracy, ontology, and substance in antebellum contexts. Chapter I investigates how Brown in Wieland demystifies the two competing ideologies of American democracy: the Republican-Democratic call for individual self-government and the Federalist request for national unity. Chapter II explores Poe's critique of the dominant democratic logic of political and cultural identification and the vain pursuit of singular individuality. Chapter III examines Hawthorne's inquiry into morbid, immoral sympathies in The Scarlet Letter, which reject the notion of sympathy for democratic social reforms. Chapter IV considers Melville's insight into the paradox of popular sovereignty in Moby-Dick by focusing on the quarter-deck scene, in which Ahab garners the crew's voluntary, unanimous consent to transform the commercial whaler Pequod into an instrument of his personal vengeance.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Richards, Eliza
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation year
  • 2013

This work has no parents.