The Whirlpool and the Mountain: Scenes of Cannibalistic Worlding in American Literature

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Donohue, Micah Kent
Graduate Program:
Comparative Literature
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 03, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Thomas Oliver Beebee, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Sean X Goudie, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • John Andres Ochoa, Committee Member
  • Julia Cuervo Hewitt, Special Member
  • inter-American
  • hemispheric American
  • world literature
  • transnational
  • intertextuality
  • cannibalism
  • translation
Throughout this dissertation, I argue that the contrapuntal arrangement of mountains and whirlpools has framed and revealed scenes of cannibalistic worlding in the literatures of the Americas since the period of discovery to the present day. With the phrase “scenes of cannibalistic worlding,” I mean to demonstrate how the paradoxical trope of cannibalism has repeatedly figured American literature, understood hemispherically, as the absorption—the poetic reinvention, the imperial standardization—of foreign languages, histories, and cultures. This juxtaposition of opposed types of devouring, a contradiction inherent to the metaphor of cannibalism, generates, on the one hand, spaces of poetic fusion and transformation—cannibalization as an intensification of creolization and transculturation—and, on the other hand, spaces of verbal homogenization and standardization—a discursive and material consequence of the cannibalism “intimately associated with imperial and colonial ventures” discussed by Peter Hulme among others. The poetic counterpointing of the whirlpool and mountain, a contrapuntal figuration already evident in accounts of Columbus’s transatlantic voyages and still evident five centuries later in Caribbean essays, illustrates rival cannibalistic modes of encountering, absorbing, translating (trans-creating), and recreating global languages and literatures within the Americas. This may be the kind of remaking that leads to the whirling together of European, African, Asian, and American sources into new poetic symbols, or it may be a negative, but still cannibalistic poetics of undoing, a consuming and negating of alterity that empowers the devourer to remake the emptied world, which is a world no longer, in his or her own image. Scenes of cannibalistic worlding are contrapuntal sites where American literature emerges as the heterotopic/heterotropic translation of “world literature,” the consumption and attempted annihilation of the same, or, however paradoxically, both at the same time. In this dissertation, I focus on cannibalistic scenes from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries in the work of José Martí, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Evert A. Duyckinck, Cornelius Mathews, Álvares de Azevedo, Machado de Assis, Maryse Condé, and John Edgar Wideman.