Novel objects: museums and scientific knowledge in nineteenth-century American literature
Gochberg, Reed Abigail
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This dissertation explores how museums generated debates about the relationship between scientific knowledge and literary aesthetics in nineteenth-century America. Henry David Thoreau, William Wells Brown, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton were among the authors who reckoned with museums’ principles of inclusion and valuation, systems of classification and organization, and use of preserved objects to generate new knowledge. While literary scholars have tended to write about museum exhibits in relation to art and mass culture, this dissertation instead analyzes how scientific museums—and their implications for literature—contributed to popular constructions of scientific and technological change. Drawing on canonical literary texts, museum guidebooks, images, and the popular press, I show that museums shaped an emergent self-consciousness about the relationship between literary and scientific knowledge during an increasingly empirical, information-driven age. To capture the diversity of literary and popular representations of museums during the nineteenth century, each chapter of this dissertation is structured around a single museum. Chapter One shows how Brown and Nathaniel Hawthorne draw analogies between museum collecting, preservation, and literary authorship in their accounts of visits to the British Museum. Moving from history to innovation and from a British to an American national institution, Chapter Two examines how Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings on originality and Whitman’s Civil War writings define the literary and political stakes of technological novelty in relation to the U.S. Patent Office gallery’s collection of patent models. Chapter Three shows how specimen collecting on behalf of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University informed discussions of empirical methods and shifting belief systems in Thoreau’s Walden and William James’s pragmatism. And Chapter Four takes up accounts of the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History in Mark Twain’s short fiction and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, both of which invoke the process of assembling fragmentary fossils to emphasize scientific fallibility and uncertainty. Taken together, these case studies demonstrate how writers used museums to contemplate the challenge of preserving knowledge and accounting for new discoveries during an era marked by technological change, proliferating information, and shifting paradigms for understanding the world.