My broader scholarship connects American cultural studies, intellectual history, and literary studies to explore the ways in which American literature registered and was a full participant in a crisis of historiography brought on by modernization. In dialectically reading little known, previously discounted, or otherwise "minor" autobiographers against canonical "major" authors of the period, my work aims to defamiliarize our received understanding of this important transitional moment. Using the wide array of methodologies available at present including a historically informed formalism, cultural studies, phenomenology, text mining and other digital humanities approaches, my scholarship seeks to continually complicate our understanding of literary history. In bringing literature back into the transatlantic and indeed global conversation of understanding our technological modernity, I make a strong argument for the importance of the humanities during this moment of disciplinary and institutiona reconfiguration. For more on my research, please see my website for the "Lab for Cultural Criticism."
In the late nineteenth century the literary genre of autobiography went through a dramatic transformation. Autobiographers increasingly wrote truncated accounts of their past, published multiple autobiographical works, used third-person narration, and dropped linear narration in favor of circuitous, repetitive, or thematic ordering. Many of these writers resisted the progress narrative that once provided authors like Benjamin Franklin with a model for representing the life narrative. My project links these formal shifts with the transatlantic critique of modern progress with reference to some of the era's most ambivalent observers of a rapidly shifting social terrain: Lucy Larcom, Henry Adams, Henry James, Ambrose Bierce, and William Dean Howells. I argue that the formal experimentation with temporality in autobiography during this period results from ambivalence to modernization experienced during an historically earlier time. Many of these autobiographers rejected the idea of planned obsolescence and the language of superannuation and in so doing they formally registered the historiographical complexities raised by questioning modern conceptions of time. While remembering these past moments, the authors I discuss resisted the closed world invited by nostalgic reactions. At the same time, their backward gaze was complicated by the contemporary modern mood to leave the past behind as well as a lingering concern over the unfinished work of the past. Yet these authors did not disavow history and subjectivity; rather, they critiqued what they viewed as the degradation of these forms. Armed with a host of self-consciously awkward affects these authors persisted in creating literary representations of lived experience.
© Copyright by James E. Dobson