Beyond significant language: Faith, possibility, and trust in Emerson, Poe, and Melville
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This dissertation examines conceptions and representations of belief—in our relationship to a beyond, to psychology or philosophy of mind, and to others—in the essays and fiction of Emerson, Poe, and Melville. The chapter on Emerson ranges across his career, starting with a reading of his 1832 sermon “The Lord's Supper” and culminating with a close reading of “Experience.” The focus is on Emerson's attempt to characterize humankind's relationship to being. He yields by writing “Experience” as something like a myth or “true romance” that recapitulates the mystery of this relationship and suggests that all we can ultimately know about it is that we are driven by instinct to believe. The chapter on Poe sets out to understand his purpose in writing “The Philosophy of Composition.” It begins with a reading of Poe's use and ultimate rejection of phrenology as he wrote and rewrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” He wrote “Philosophy” as an indictment of the reductionist impulse to which he fell prey in embracing phrenology, but also as a lesson about how heading down the wrong path can lead to greater understanding. The chapter on Melville is a close reading of The Confidence-Man with an emphasis on Melville's frustrating insistence on the elusive nature of character. The novel, which so thoroughly enacts the dilemma of whether and when to trust others that it has often been read as impenetrable or cynical, is meant as something like a plea for negative capability in human relations.