Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2010

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Martin E. Bickman

Second Advisor

Patricia Sullivan

Third Advisor

Penelope Kelsey


Scholars have situated the emergence of a literary documentary aesthetic in the politically radical 1930s. My dissertation, "Radical Representations, Eruptive Moments: The Documentary Aesthetic in American Literature, 1890-Present," revises this genealogy and traces the aesthetic to an earlier time, the 1890s. This aesthetic emerges alongside the development of visual technologies such as flash photography and the cinematograph, technologies that altered reading practices and expectations. Though no concentrated documentary movement exists at the turn of the twentieth century, documentary techniques inform literary production. Specifically, these techniques result in hybrid narratives. Moreover, this documentary turn responds to eruptive moments--cultural, political, technological, and geological. The dominant characteristic of the aesthetic are radical representations that give voice and space to voices-from-the-margins accounts. These representations depend upon an ekphrastic visuality and an aural realism. This study identifies radical representations of race, gender, labor, memory, and place in literature from the late nineteenth century to the present. Each chapter focuses on a style of representation and designates this style as radical, even when the authors themselves have not (yet) been considered radical. Specifically, I examine Stephen Crane's "new eyes" in "In the Depths of a Coal Mine" and other early writings, Charles W. Chesnutt's "American eye" in The Marrow of Tradition, and Lee Smith's documentary frames in her contemporary novels, Oral History and On Agate Hill. I argue that this aesthetic demands a new reading formation that transforms the reader into the reader-witness who must interact with documentary materials, such as letters, newspapers, photographs, and legal documents, in order to make meaning. I contend not that the texts in my study function as documentaries but that they stand as cultural documents that reflect a changing relationship among author, text, and reader-witness. The documentary aesthetic influences writers from the major literary movements of realism-naturalism, modernism, and postmodernism. This dissertation asserts that American literature must be understood in relation to the documentary materials that inspire and inhabit it. The documentary aesthetic charts a course for attaining this new and more nuanced understanding.