Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English



First Advisor

Valerie Karno


Architectures of Captivity is a study of the literary construction of freedom through the paradoxical image of captivity. This project deals primarily with literature of the antebellum age, a critical moment in the historical genealogy of American freedom. A major supposition of the project is that the fundamental beliefs we hold about freedom—as citizens of the United States, as inheritors of the liberal traditions of the West, as sympathizers of democratic movements worldwide—were formed at the moment this dissertation interrogates. From the period’s discourses of Romanticism and liberalism and through the rise of the modern nation-state there materialized the fantastical and still powerful fiction of the sovereign individual. Upholding this privileged construct in the antebellum age—its whiteness and masculinity, its bourgeois power, its self-possession and marvelous freedom—were a host of institutions, structures, and practices that held disparate masses of less fortunate people politically, economically, and psychologically captive. These institutions and their iconic architectures (many progressive in purpose and innovation) bound large numbers of slaves, women, indentures, laborers, and convicts to lives of perpetual subordination and imprisoned the broader human capacity to constitute, sympathize, and imagine.

This project attends to the meanings of freedom and personhood that emerge from the crucible of antebellum captivity. It is a wide-ranging investigation, one that implicates the historical discourses of modernity, temporality, spatiality, imagination, geopolitics, urbanization, and labor. Methodologically speaking, the project is dialectic. It locates within extreme spaces of captivity oppositional ties and tensions that structured dominance and resistance and that produced provocative and embodied political and psychological categories, which remain with us today.



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