Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of English

Content Description

1 online resource (vii, 230 pages) : color illustrations.

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Eric Keenaghan

Committee Members

Paul Stasi , Jennifer Greiman


Literature and science, American literature

Subject Categories

American Literature


“Meeting Places: The Entanglements of Poetry and Science in the Modern American Imagination” explores how Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Carlos Williams, and Muriel Rukeyser responded to the rise of modern science and industrial technology by reflecting on the similarities and differences between the poetic and scientific imaginations. Across four chapters, I show how the growth of the natural and social sciences from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century spurred these writers to rethink the social and cultural functions of literature in a democratic society. Unlike many of their peers, these figures refused to treat science either as a monolithic threat to the poetic imagination or as a wholly other culture, preferring to explore what Rukeyser termed the “meeting place” between experimental modes of literary composition, scientific research, and the unique challenges of a culture aspiring towards democracy. Despite considerable differences of style, each of these writers focused on the role of the imagination in aesthetic production and reception, scientific reflection, and democratic deliberation. Far from extending the idealistic metaphysics of the Romantics, modernists like Du Bois, Williams, and Rukeyser framed the arts as a primary site from which a secular, and sometimes materialist, account of the imagination might be articulated that would support a more inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic conception of knowledge. Rather than analyze literary presentations of science, I call attention to the way literature became a primary practice for reflecting on the vexed normative and social questions raised, but often neglected, by the increasingly scientific modernization of American life in this period. Much of the interest these writers had in the natural and social sciences concerned the way that developments in evolutionary science, physics, and mathematics enacted profound and counterintuitive shifts in conceptions of history, human agency, causality, and the relations between mind and matter. Informed by the synthetic philosophy of the classical American pragmatists and the literary experimentalism of Emerson, Du Bois, Williams, and Rukeyser countered a deterministic scientism evidenced by the rise of scientific management, eugenics, technological warfare, and positivist modes of social and political theorizing by drawing on scientific discourses and methods that evidenced the workings of chance and spontaneity in the physical and social world. Collectively, these writers articulated visions for an embodied, environmental, and social conception of human agency and imagination that saw both poetry and science as fallible and collaborative methods for thinking that could foster norms and virtues commensurate with America’s aspirations for both liberty and equality.