Date of Award

2013

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Mary Cappello

Abstract

From the time of American independence to the antebellum period, Americans labored to distinguish their collective identity from that of their colonial forebears in a world increasingly shaped by technological advances, industrial transformations, and scientific developments. Discoveries regarding electricity and electromagnetism resulted in inventions that would especially revolutionize human life. The advent of the lightning-rod in the mid-eighteenth century challenged prior notions that a destructive lightning bolt was an inevitable consequence of divine will, with any interference with that power understood as sacrilege. The rod symbolized a new, Franklinian American, who, steeped in Enlightenment science and philosophy, could stand up against religious and cultural dogma. In a post-Franklin America, one could re-invent oneself—and embody divine power—by harnessing and mastering nature, replacing old gods with new “gods” of technology and reason. Lightning-Rod Men, Magnetic Lives, Bodies Electric examines a strange and powerful epistemological and representational turn inside this discourse: those moments in which antebellum American writers imagined the human body itself as a lightning rod, as a centralized conductor that could use, transform, or synthesize this newly understood power beneficially. Images of the body as a lightning-rod came to signify a new American corporeal identity, one that allied the spirit of Franklinian independence and self-reliance with a materially manifest, independent and self-reliant body. Could a body’s ability to channel, control, and convey electrical current, all the while remaining insulated from its harm, indicate some exceptional, supernatural power, or a form of artistic genius? This is the question that came to pre-occupy the writers whom I treat.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman exemplify the antebellum American struggle to grasp the significance of emerging electromagnetic technologies and determine how this new knowledge could illuminate our understandings of the human body. Investigating the prominence of electromagnetic metaphors and representations of corporeality in Emerson’s essays, Melville’s Moby-Dick and “The Lightning Rod Man,” and Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, I find ambivalent readings of electromagnetism’s significance for constructions and conceptualizations of the human body vying with a theme of electromagnetic conductivity as a trope for genius: the image of an integrated body, mind, and soul that could directly translate the influence of nature into words and actions. Although all three writers espouse self-reliance and liberation from external influences, they share an impulse to create imagery that would pose the body of the attractive or enlightened poet, artist, performer, or orator as an electrified automaton, influenced and guided by the forces of nature. In their formulations, the attractive poet or performer seems marked for success by remaining impervious to the danger of conducting electrical currents, while synthesizing these currents and conveying them to audiences through “electrified” or “electrifying” performances. Through such imagery, these writers not only anticipated later constructions of corporeality, but also invented them through language. Such imagery continues to inform metaphors of corporeality today, as exemplified by clichéd language used to characterize celebrities. These “dead metaphors” reveal larger frameworks of cultural metanarratives that inform our understanding of a range of affective traits or personal characteristics, from spirituality to enthusiasm, from attractiveness to enlightenment, from animation to genius.

Share

COinS