John (Jack) Kerkering
Title/s: Associate Professor
Specialty Area: 19th- and early 20th-century American literature and culture, poetry and poetics, national and racial identity
Office #: Crown Center 461
My research focuses on the history of literary form, especially poetic form. Of particular interest to me is how accounts of literary form have helped innovate our understanding of personhood. Thus in my first book, The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, I address writers and critics of poetry who, for various reasons, sought to understand particular literary forms as extensions of—and indeed as outright embodiments of—specific nations and races: Scots, Southern Confederates, Anglo Saxons, and “Negroes.” This commitment advanced the nascent view that objects like poems could not merely express a national or racial character in their content, but could also, and more importantly, embody a national or racial identity in their very being—in the pulses and rhythms by which they were formally constituted. The larger implication of imagining identity to inhere in literary form (rather than character inhering in literary content) is that literary form, thus understood, could facilitate the emergence of a concept of identity that would later be extended from poems to persons, an extension that has come to seem natural today but that took time and effort—including this very literary theorizing—to effect. By facilitating the accomplishment of this project—the project of coming to understand persons as, like the literary forms before them, having racial identities—writers and critics of literature contributed, I suggest, to establishing an important way in which we think about persons today.
My second book, Racial Rhapsody: The Aesthetics of Contemporary U.S. Identity, asks related questions about how more recent efforts to think about literary form have contributed to the ongoing project of conceptualizing racial identities. When mid-century New Critical formalists promoted their preferred approach to reading poems, they agreed that poetry’s readers should resist the temptation of aesthetic rhapsody (i.e. allowing oneself to be emotionally transported by the poem) in favor of aesthetic objectivity (i.e. analyzing the poem’s form), but in articulating this preference they revealed, despite themselves, just how powerful a temptation rhapsody is, one with a fraught aesthetic reputation dating back to Plato. The same aesthetic tension between objectivity and rhapsody that the New Critics sought to repress has nevertheless persisted, I argue, as a central preoccupation of New Criticism’s departmental successor and conceptual heir within U.S. universities, the discipline of identity studies. Concerned primarily with the racial body rather than the literary work as its aesthetic object, identity studies presents that body just as the New Critics did the poem, as occasioning a tension between objectivity and rhapsody: the objectivity—and indeed objectification—that is necessarily involved in identifying what race one’s body belongs to, followed by the rhapsody of being swept away by one’s experience, via that body, of one’s racial identity—an experience that I call racial rhapsody. In addition to tracing this disciplinary continuity between New Criticism and identity studies, this book also raises a critical question: by conceiving of and indeed celebrating racial identity in these aesthetic terms, don’t we preserve not just the fundamental concerns of New Critical aesthetics but also the problematic category of race itself?
AB, Harvard College
MA, PhD, Johns Hopkins University
American Literature and Culture, African American Literature, Nineteenth-Century Studies, Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture, Literature and Identity, Poetry and Poetics
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and culture; poetry and poetics; national and racial identity
Racial Rhapsody: The Aesthetics of Contemporary U.S. Identity, Routledge, 2019.
The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2003 (A Choice “Outstanding Academic Title, 2004”).
“The South in Reconstruction: White and Black Voices.” The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Edited by Alfred Bendixen. Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 383-402.
“Theories of Poetry.” The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume Six: The Nineteenth Century, c. 1830-c.1940. Edited by M. A. R. Habib. Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 524-38.
“Poe and Southern Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century Poetry. Edited by Kerry Charles Larson, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 193-207.
“American Renaissance Poetry and the Topos of Positionality: Genius Mundi and Genius Loci in Walt Whitman and William Gilmore Simms.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 43, no. 2, Summer 2005, pp. 223-48.
“‘Of Me and Of Mine’: The Music of Racial Identity in Whitman and Lanier, Dvorák and Du Bois.” American Literature, vol. 73, no. 1, March 2001, pp. 147-84.
“‘We are Five-and-Forty’: Meter and National Identity in Sir Walter Scott.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 40, no. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 85-98.