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Miles of Stare

Transcendentalism and the Problem of Literary Vision in Nineteenth-Century America

Michelle Kohler

Publication Year: 2014

Miles of Stare explores the problem of nineteenth-century American literary vision: the strange conflation of visible reality and poetic language that emerges repeatedly in the metaphors and literary creations of American transcendentalists.

The strangeness of nineteenth-century poetic vision is exemplified most famously by Emerson’ s transparent eyeball. That disembodied, omniscient seer is able to shed its body and transcend sight paradoxically in order to see— not to create— poetic language “ manifest” on the American landscape. In Miles of Stare, Michelle Kohler explores the question of why, given American transcendentalism’ s anti-empiricism, the movement’ s central trope becomes an eye purged of imagination. And why, furthermore, she asks, despite its insistent empiricism, is this notorious eye also so decidedly not an eye? What are the ethics of casting a boldly equivocal metaphor as the source of a national literature amidst a national landscape fraught with slavery, genocide, poverty, and war?

Miles of Stare explores these questions first by tracing the historical emergence of the metaphor of poetic vision as the transcendentalists assimilated European precedents and wrestled with America’ s troubling rhetoric of manifest destiny and national identity. These questions are central to the work of many nineteenth-century authors writing in the wake of transcendentalism, and Kohler offers examples from the writings of Douglass, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Howells, and Jewett that form a cascade of new visual metaphors that address the irreconcilable contradictions within the transcendentalist metaphor and pursue their own efforts to produce an American literature. Douglass’ s doomed witness to slavery, Hawthorne’ s reluctantly omniscient narrator, and Dickinson’ s empty “ miles of Stare” variously skewer the authority of Emerson’ s all-seeing poetic eyeball while attributing new authority to the limitations that mark their own literary gazes.

Tracing this metaphorical conflict across genres from the 1830s through the 1880s, Miles of Stare illuminates the divergent, contentious fates of American literary vision as nineteenth-century writers wrestle with the commanding conflation of vision and language that lies at the center of American transcendentalism— and at the core of American national identity.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I am grateful for the fellowships and grants that funded the research and writing of this project at various stages: I owe thanks to the University of Oregon for the Margaret McBride Lehrman Fellowship and the Ernst Fellowship and to Tulane University for the Research Enhancement Grant, the Committee...

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Introduction: The Stare that Signalizes

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pp. 1-17

“Miles of Stare” is a haunting locution from an 1861 poem by Emily Dickinson in which the speaker observes that she has “known a Heaven, like a Tent” (Fr257) to vanish without a trace, leaving only the empty stares of those expecting a dazzling show:1...

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1. Emerson, Trancendentalism, and the Problem of Literary Vision

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pp. 18-51

Emerson introduces his 1844 essay “The Poet” with a poem that describes a pair of eyes that “rived the dark” and, through “worlds, and races, and terms, and times, / Saw musical order, and pairing rhymes” (445). What Emerson’s poet sees not only already bears aesthetic form but also yields specifically linguistic, poetic results. Seeing “pairing rhymes” implies the perception of...

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2. Doomed to Be a Witness: The Authroity of Ineluctable Vision in Douglass's Slave Narratives

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pp. 52-77

One of the pivotal experiences Douglass records in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is a vicious assault by white workers at the shipyard where he worked: “[O]ne of [them] gave me, with his heavy boot, a powerful kick in the left eye. My eyeball seemed to have burst” (68). Much like Jacobs’s eye at the attic peephole,...

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3. Dim Optics: Privacy, Access, and the Reluctant Seer in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables

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pp. 78-104

If Emerson regards visual contact with the American world to be a safeguard against miswriting the poem, and if Douglass casts it as the unavoidable source of his slave narrative, Nathaniel Hawthorne famously complains in “The Custom-House” that such contact arrests the process of literary creation. Reluctantly stuck in the tedium of earning a living and the tensions of...

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4. Scarce Opon My Eyes: Fleeting Visions and the Epistemology of Metaphor in Dickinson's Poetry

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pp. 105-136

While Douglass, Hawthorne, and others were reconfiguring literary vision in prose genres during the mid-nineteenth century, poetic language retained special stature in transcendentalist and other texts as an epistemological record of spiritual meaning visible on the American landscape. If “[p]articular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts,” as Emerson argues...

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5. To Arrange a Perspective: Howells, Jewett, and the Provoked Eye of Realism

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pp. 137-166

When Dickinson’s poems were initially published in 1890, William Dean Howells was one of the first (and few) important reviewers to praise them. In his “Editor’s Study” column in the January 1891 issue of Harper’s New Monthly, he celebrates the poems as strange and rare—sometimes full of “weird witchery”—but also “true” and “certain” (319); he describes the poems...

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pp. 167-180

Given Jewett’s failure to see Native Americans or to see from their perspectives in The Country of the Pointed Firs, we must conclude, to some degree, by acknowledging the ways writers reproduce, even as they redress, the problem of American vision: its conflation of perception and rhetorical construction through visual metaphors that lay claim to knowledge and authority...


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pp. 181-206

Works Cited

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pp. 207-222


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pp. 223-227

E-ISBN-13: 9780817387662
E-ISBN-10: 0817387668
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817318352
Print-ISBN-10: 0817318356

Page Count: 237
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 880369516
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Miles of Stare

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Transcendentalism in literature.
  • Realism in literature.
  • Figures of speech.
  • Polarity in literature.
  • American literature -- New England -- History and criticism -- 19th century.
  • Transcendentalism (New England).
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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