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The Imperfect Form: Literary Fragments and Politics in the Early Republic


“The Imperfect Form: Literary Fragments and Politics in the Early Republic” examines a style of writing that grew in popularity in America from the 1770s through the middle of the nineteenth century—the fragment. In the burgeoning literary culture of the early American republic, authors commonly titled essays, poems, articles, and portions of novels “fragments” to create an unfinished aesthetic. Early republican reading audiences regularly encountered literary fragments in the corners of periodicals, in newspaper columns, in the pages of novels, and scattered throughout verse collections.

By and large, literary fragments exemplify two trends: the political, in the late eighteenth century, and the aesthetic, in the early nineteenth century. In the first half of my project, I examine how writers in the late eighteenth century consistently associated fragments with marginalized individuals. Material texts like a fragment of a letter, the shred of a diary page, or an illegible pamphlet provided resonant symbols for the fractured subjectivities of veterans, prostitutes, slaves, free blacks, the disabled, and other outcasts. The fragment form presents a way of accessing identities that are otherwise relatively unavailable, and authors like Samuel Jackson Pratt, Mathew Carey, Susannah Rowson, and Hannah Webster Foster used fragmentary texts to reconstruct the political agency of marginal individuals in new, vitally significant ways.

However, during the turn of the century writers began to move away from the intensely political emphasis and toward a more aesthetic fragment (though this movement transpired unevenly). The second half of my project focuses on writers like Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who all explored the formal features of the fragment. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first usage of “fragment” as a verb occurs in a line from John Keats’s poem Endymion in 1818. Influenced by British and German Romantics, early nineteenth-century American authors begin to think of the fragment more as a verb—something in motion or in process. Attending to the literary history of the fragment thus provides insight into the complex connections among politics, material form, and aesthetic tradition in the early years of American literary culture.

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