Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of English

Content Description

1 online resource (v, 219 pages)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Jennifer Greiman

Committee Members

James Lilley, Erica Fretwell


Affect, American Literature, Nineteenth Century, Trauma, Violence, Violence in literature, Psychic trauma in literature, Racism in literature, American literature

Subject Categories

American Literature | English Language and Literature


The dissertation studies the pre-history of trauma in US American fiction, examining how experiences of large-scale adversity are represented before the concept of psychological trauma emerges in the late nineteenth century. Distinctly modern forms of violence—diffuse, systemic, lacking direction and intent—bring forth less individual and personal experiences of grief and suffering than those imagined by twentieth-century trauma theory. Studying forms of feeling and of genre that make trauma legible historicizes the way a Western idea of modern subjectivity, as white, self-possessed, agential, and split, has shaped out understanding of how a person processes crisis. The dissertation visits three spaces that form different relationships with the impersonal violence of modernity: the frontier, the colony, and the railroad. The first chapter on Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827) demonstrates the compatibility and congruence of racial hatred and sentimental feelings in the historical romance. In chapter II, I examine how Herman Melville’s overtly sentimental Galápagos sketches in “The Encantadas” (1854) stage a crisis of moral sentiment, thereby exposing the reader’s desire for identification as species-specific and cruel. The last chapter on Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Black Bess” (1868) is concerned with the industrial accident, site of the ‘railway spine,’ a now obsolete neurological disorder and beginning of the medicalization of trauma. Finally, the coda offers thoughts on how to expand our thinking about (proto-)trauma with regard to subjects excluded from nineteenth-century personhood, that way recalling the preceding chapters’ ideas of indigeneity and nonhuman suffering.