Broadly put, my research focuses on American literature and science in the long nineteenth century (1830 – 1914). Specifically, I study the reciprocal relationship between the life and human sciences, on the one hand, and literary and cultural production, on the other. In other words, I consider how new and developing disciplines like biology, ecology, psychology, and sociology were products of a cultural, political, and social environment that they themselves–along with other vectors–helped to shape and form. The interchange between science & literature goes both ways, and sometimes in other ways, too–ways that are difficult to predict from the outset. As a literary scholar I believe that written narratives from the period (whether fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere between) provide reliable and unique access to this messy, surprising, and ever-important site of exchange.
My dissertation centers on the figure of ‘the crowd’ as it was deployed in American literature and science through the mid-to-late nineteenth century. While ‘the crowd’ has no doubt been an important figure for all of human history, it was not until the 19th century that it became a subject of scientific inquiry as well as a topic of widespread public interest. Scientists from biology to sociology studied the so-called “laws of the crowd” even as literary writers similarly sought to understand why many people gathered together seem to act and think differently than any single person. For scientists and artists alike, this divergence between the many and the one raised intractable legal, ethical, political, and representational problems.
I argue that this confluence of crowd interests must be situated within the history of American race and racism, since depictions of the crowd are inherently racialized, whether explicitly or implicitly. Only by grappling with the racial face of the putatively ‘faceless’ crowd can we come to understand why the late nineteenth witnessed such an obsessive interest in the crowd and related (though importantly different!) collective social formations, like the corporation, the lynch mob, the masses, the population, the aggregate.