American Vitalism: Life, Matter, and the Crisis of American Liberalism

Doctoral Dissertation


“American Vitalism” refocuses analysis of the social crises that challenged antebellum American liberalism by investigating their connection to representations of physical nature that sharply differentiated living organisms from dead matter. The new American republic promised radical liberty and prosperity to many, but this project demonstrates how this prevalent bifurcation of the material world into living and dead components contrastingly situated racialized humans and non-human animals as the naturalized economic instruments of their vitally “superior” masters. The dissertation explores how an organic formulation of life—one that envisioned living things as distinctly autonomous and internally unified—influenced the insidious identification of white American males as nature’s ideal individuals, and thus as an ideal life form in an otherwise cadaverous universe. “American Vitalism” utilizes an interdisciplinary and transnational methodology, uniting close readings of influential antebellum literary texts with analysis of German, French, and English scientific and philosophical works. In chapters on Melville’s Moby-Dick, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and the writings of Native American author and activist William Apess, it demonstrates how concepts of life and matter violently supported myths of autonomous Caucasian male individualism. Each chapter also reveals these authors’ creative struggle to ambiguate the limits of life and death—of life and matter—in order to challenge antebellum individualist paradigms.

Situating its discussion of racial difference within an interdisciplinary discourse on the status of life and matter, “American Vitalism” recasts the crisis of American liberalism as one inextricably linked to human violence against non-human nature. In chapters that investigate the worldviews of Moby-Dick’s major Caucasian characters it explores how their arrogation of a superior organic vitality to themselves produces a concomitant equation of dead matter with racial others and with the whales systematically slaughtered by the whaling industry. By bringing the European vitalist tradition into conversation with the novel, the project reinterprets Moby-Dick as a meditation on this diverse but shared life of nature—a nature that is neither fully opaque in its otherness, merely allegorical or symbolic, nor anthropocentric in its structure.


Attribute NameValues
Author Erik Larsen
Contributor Laura Dassow Walls, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Literature
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2015-10-26

Submission Date 2016-04-13
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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