Prehistoric to Posthuman: Animality, Inheritance, and Identity in American Evolutionary Narratives

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Bailin, Deborah
Wyatt, David M
This project examines how Darwinian discourse has influenced representations of the relationship between animality and humanness in twentieth-century American literature. Scholarship in the conceptually rich and growing field of animal studies, to which my dissertation contributes, covers a wide range of topics, from the symbolic and metaphoric treatment of nonhuman animals to the ethics of representation and the politics of animal rights. Recent theoretical work has further broadened the scope of inquiry by raising questions about the cultural construction of animality and its relationship to definitions of the human. Although some scholars have argued for the importance of embodiment in (re)considering twentieth-century representations of the human, challenging the opposition between "animal" and "human," only a few have addressed how Darwin's descriptions of prehuman ancestry and a potentially posthuman future might have shaped these representations. My study aims to rectify this critical lack. By examining how evolutionary narratives of growth, mutation, and transformation intersect with American narratives of history, progress, and identity, my dissertation complicates traditional associations between the cultural impact of Darwin's ideas and the determinism and social Darwinism often associated with literary naturalism during its classic phase. Beginning with a chapter comparing the treatment of animality and evolution in works by Frank Norris and Jack London, I trace the imaginative and metanaturalistic reshaping of these narratives across the century through chapters on abolition and evolution in novels by William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, evolution as apocalypse in Bernard Malamud's God's Grace and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy, and animals, evolution, and language in Edward Albee's plays. Varying in the scope of its concerns about natural and cultural inheritance, each of my chapters considers how animality operates as a recursive trope against the disembodiment of the subject, expressing both possibilities and fears about what it means to be human.