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Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson
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Book description

Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson locates a paradoxical question - how does one prepare to be surprised? - at the heart of several major modernist texts. Arguing that this paradox of perception gives rise to an American literary methodology, this book dramatically reframes how practices of reading and writing evolved among modernist authors after Emerson. Whereas Walter Benjamin defines modernity as a 'series of shocks' inflicted from without, Emerson offers a countervailing optic that regards life as a 'series of surprises' unfolding from within. While Benjaminian shock elicits intimidation and defensiveness, Emersonian surprise fosters states of responsiveness and spontaneity whereby unexpected encounters become generative rather than enervating. As a study of how such states of responsiveness were cultivated by a post-Emerson tradition of writers and thinkers, this project displaces longstanding models of modernist perception defined by shock's passive duress, and proposes alternate models of reception that proceed from the active practice of surprise.


'Kate Stanley’s Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson redefines everything we thought we knew about American modernism. In its convincing account modernism isn’t about the experience of shock, speed, newness, noise and the crazed obsession with futurity. Instead, it appears as a series of practices cultivating moments of surprise that come gently and leave quietly; it is about reception and serenity rather than the loud expounding of manifestos; it is about slowness and restoration of the old, and not at all a matter of forgetting the past on the grounds of its datedness. In this beautifully written and rigorously argued book canonical figures, from Emerson to Gertrude Stein are restored as the bearers of such a gentle and quiet modernism. This book will change the way we think about the history of American ideas at the turn of the twentieth century.'

Branka Arsić - Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor, Columbia University, New York

'This revelatory book demonstrates how the nuanced dynamics of Emersonian surprise - rather than the brutal shock concepts developed in the wake of World War I - underlie modernist literature’s aesthetic breakthroughs. In moving from Proust or Stein to the nineteenth century and back, Stanley rejects our discipline’s crude historicisms in order to track the unexpected movements of literary time.'

Michael W. Clune - Case Western Reserve University, Ohio

Kate Stanley’s Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson is a dynamic form of intellectual history that, focusing on a poetics of surprise, threads together writers and thinkers from Emerson and William James to Nella Larsen and John Cage. The study lives up to its title by including clever, beautifully crafted readings that show how the practice works. The erudition is breathtaking: this will be an essential resource for scholars in literary studies and of great interest to philosophers of phenomenology. Practices of Surprise reflects a keen knowledge of American pragmatism and contributes to contemporary critical debate about the methods and ends of literary scholarship.'

Jane F. Thrailkill - Bank of America Honors Distinguished Term Associate Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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