New Spiritualism: Approaching the Dead in Twenty-First-Century American Poetry

Doctoral Dissertation


Since 9/11, questions about death, mourning, and memorialization have been thrust to the foreground of American national consciousness, with shortcomings in the paradigm for dealing with death being highlighted by performances of grief on a global stage. Contemporary North American poets are rejecting the received Freudian-based notion of mourning as a process of relinquishing attachment to the deceased, exploring instead writing’s capacity for forging contact with the dead. The impulse to test and affirm the possibility of communicating with the dead has important roots in nineteenth-century American Spiritualism, which offered practitioners a “scientific” approach to spiritual experience by figuring the séance in empirical terms. Recourse to pseudo-science to validate spiritual experience is not possible in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth, however, and contemporary poets are pioneering a new spiritualism for the twenty-first century by seeking writerly practices for contacting the dead that yield plausible, positive results. Poets like Susan Howe, Kristen Prevallet, Rusty Morrison, Mary Jo Bang, and M. NourbeSe Philip are using the practice of writing as a means of cultivating felt spiritual contact with the deceased, with skepticism and the imperative for plausibility playing a vital role in each of their pursuits. Meanwhile, poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Claudia Rankine, C.D. Wright, and Nick Flynn question the capacity of such practices to contend with large-scale public tragedy, problematizing the individualistic, Jamesian approach to spiritual experience that drives solitary pursuits of contact with the dead. All of these works employ experimental methods towards deeply personal ends, evidencing collapse of a longstanding division in American literature that figures experimental writing as abstract and difficult and mainstream writing as emotional and accessible. In exploring how innovative language use fosters connection with the dead, these poets mark out a vital role for experimental writing in twenty-first-century spiritual life in America.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-07152014-102039

Author Kristina Jipson
Advisor Stephen Fredman
Contributor Romana Huk, Committee Member
Contributor Stephen Fredman, Committee Chair
Contributor Kate Marshall, Committee Member
Contributor Henry Weinfield, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline English
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2014-07-05

Submission Date 2014-07-15
  • United States of America

  • experimental literature

  • elegy

  • mourning

  • poetry

  • American literature

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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