Theo Davis

Theo Davis

Fellow: Awarded 2018
Field of Study: Literary Criticism

Competition: US & Canada

I see my career as an evolving inquiry into the nature of experience as it relates to literary critical practice. My first book, Formalism, Experience and the Making of American Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), argued that nineteenth-century American writers conceived of the experience of reading as a realm of typical responses that was, itself, the true medium of literature. I also proposed such work be thought of as an “affective formalism,” one that looked to the structure and shape of responsive experience as a domain of aesthetic interest. My second book, Ornamental Aesthetics: The Poetry of Attending in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Whitman (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016) built off of that approach to argue that ornamentation is a practice of honoring and attending, one that figures a particular way of being in relation to the world. Together, these books pay intense attention to the difference language makes, but always with an eye to that difference as it manifests in perception and behavior, or in the felt range of human experience.

Focusing on the connections between specific qualities of language and aspects of emotional, mental, and even bodily behavior is still more central to my new project, which I will spend the fellowship year working on. “Sensations of Freedom: Somatics and Personal Development in American Literature” reevaluates the commitment to self-development at the heart of American literature. I focus upon individual embodiment as a site of transformation, looking at how authors experience the body and how they respond to problems of mobility, energy, and orientation by changing the body and being changed by it. Such personal somatic concerns are, I argue, central to nineteenth-century accounts of liberty as the capacity to change. One of the theoretical ambitions of the project is to connect the commitments of a range of body-oriented modes of therapy (from somatics to sensorimotor trauma treatment) to literary studies, in order to make a new place within humanistic scholarship for the value and interest of thinking about human development and personal transformation.

After studying studio art and semiotics as an undergraduate at Brown University, I went on to graduate study in English and American literature at the Johns Hopkins University. I taught in the English Department at Williams College for ten years before joining the faculty of Northeastern University in 2012, where I am now Professor of English.

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