Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation argues that during the mid nineteenth century, American authors including Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass saw the traditionally elite genre of portraiture as an auspicious site for experimenting with democratic art and politics. In frontispieces, photographs, novels, poems, and lectures, they tested the ways an image of one unique self might fit together more or less harmoniously with images of other “equal” selves, together building an image of an egalitarian social and political collectivity. The portrait was key because it spoke directly to the fundamental structural trouble looming over the proposition of democratic equality, namely the relation of part to whole—also known as the problem of the one and the many encoded in the national motto “E pluribus unum.” This problem was (and is) about the tension between core American values of equality and diversity. How could people be equal and different at the same time? That question seemed to pose the basic problem of irreconcilable values at the heart of American aesthetics and politics leading up to the Civil War. In light of it, Melville, Whitman, and Douglass strategized different responses, ranging from Melville’s qualified skepticism to Whitman’s visionary mysticism to Douglass’s pragmatic liberalism. To understand the why and how of these responses, this project draws on word and image theory to develop an expanded definition of portraiture that links it to narrative and introduces it in new ways to literary studies. Building on recent advances in formal analysis, I show democratic aesthetics and politics mutually constituted by imagination on the one hand and materiality on the other.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Abram Van Engen

Committee Members

Nathaniel Jones, Angela Miller, Vivian Pollak, Rafia Zafar,


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/8cp7-8q20

Available for download on Wednesday, August 15, 2029