THE POET AND THE HEGEMON: ESSAYS IN THE LITERARY HISTORY OF CAPITALISM, 1850-1950
Johns Hopkins University
“The Poet and the Hegemon” argues that in the lead-up to the “American century,” poets responded to the United States’ transformation into a global power with a poetics of imitation that focused on the technologies driving American capitalism’s ascendancy. Texts by Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, Ezra Pound, and Muriel Rukeyser center on technological attempts to imitate the self-regulating power of nature —fossil energy, money, cybernetic machines—that were also key weapons in capital’s broader struggle to expand in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. In the chapters that follow, I argue that authors use imitatio—an Early Modern literary practice originally meant for thinking about competitions between generations, or between the ancients and the moderns—to try to make sense of differences internal to the present during an era when capitalist competition was driving a historically new shift in global economic power. For select writers, imitation is a heuristic for understanding how poets compete with capitalism for a power to create that is structured and troubled by multiple temporalities. The poets I look at implicitly compare the hegemon’s tumultuous struggle to recreate the conditions for capitalist accumulation and expansion, to the creative dynamism of the imitating poet. In the hands of these authors, imitation becomes a way to understand the relationship between capitalist strategy, technological development, and historical change.
American Literature, Capitalism