The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature

The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature

The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature

The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature


As a central icon of political and cultural democracy, the crowd occupies a prominent place in the American literary and cultural landscape. Mary Esteve examines a range of writing by Poe, Hawthorne, Du Bois, James, and Stephen Crane to provide a study of crowd representations in American literature from the antebellum era to the early twentieth century. She argues that these writers examined the aesthetic and political meanings of urban crowd scenes.


The seventh section of George Oppen’s poem of Being Numerous (1968) appears as follows:

Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.

The forty-part poem in its entirety can be read as a searching, speculative meditation on this particular section’s concerns: crisis, singularity, choice, meaning, and above all numerosity. This sections syntax of narrative (the complete sentence, the present perfect verb tense), along with its testimonial collectivity (the first-person plural), gestures toward the historically persistent hold of these concerns on modern consciousness. the gesture is justifiable. in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” is often treated as the locus classicus of this inquiry into what being numerous entails. the story dramatizes one man’s inexplicable attraction to crowds, an existential mystery that is compounded by the narratorprotagonist’s inexplicable fascination with this one man. Oppen’s lines could almost be taken as a latter-day ventriloquism of Poe’s mute character, were it not for the fact that this man appears so obsessed and bewildered as to be incapable of choosing anything at all.

Choosing – or more simply exemplifying – the meaning of being numerous: this book offers a necessarily selective and truncated genealogy of this preoccupation. Its point of entry is the city crowd. Beginning with the antebellum era’s incipient urban consciousness and concluding with what is commonly referred to as the nation’s second great wave of mass immigration, I focus on the period during which Americans came to understand themselves as veritable veterans of numerosity, that is, as inhabiting . . .

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