Slow Tyrannies: Queer Lyricism, Visual Regionalism, and the Transfigured World

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English Language and Literature

First Advisor

Hammer, Langdon


“Slow Tyrannies” uncovers and traces the development, from the 1920s through the late 1970s, of a reparative and regenerative queer American modernism that is distinguished by its commitments to intermediality, homoerotic desire, past time, and originary place. By distinguishing this literary movement from the high modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound that has historically overshadowed and opposed it, I extend Hart Crane’s desire to produce a syncretizing representation of visionary experience, revealing how a range of poets, painters, and poet-painters including Crane, Marsden Hartley, William Faulkner, Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery created new forms of queer expressivity. Based on how these figures work within the space where image and text overlap, “Slow Tyrannies” deviates from normative schematizations of verbal-visual relations, which have tended to present poetry and painting as embattled camps, vying for cultural authority and governed by largely incommensurable approaches to signification, temporality, and space. I introduce a theory of “queer lyricism”—a cross-media representational praxis that encodes the ecstasies of homoerotic connection in order to forestall the ruinous consequences of stigmatization. To make this needed intervention in queer and lyric theories, I draw from semiotics, object relations, phenomenology, and Goffmanian symbolic interactionism. I deepen my argument by showing how queer lyricism, in opposition to Eliotic modernism’s phobic strictures and egoistic drive for aesthetic autonomy, attaches its intermedial desires to two complementary objectives regarding its American origins: 1) to recuperate models of transcendence arising from the American Renaissance and 2) to draw creative material from and redirect psychic energy back to the cultural peripheries where the figures in my project originated. I describe this process of rapprochement, which intensified in the 1930s and 1940s, as “visual regionalism.” Through this concept, I reorient understandings of regionalism—those efforts to distribute aesthetic authority and cultural capital beyond the metropole—by showing how they operate through imaginaries of queer nostalgia that bring the arts into intimate relation. “Slow Tyrannies” tracks the lines of affinity unspooled by queer writers and artists as they veered from the local to the global, around the gravitational center of New York, which becomes enmeshed within regional and national networks of aesthetic judgment and circulation. In addition to examining how these figures navigated literary space and constructed networks of intimacy, I develop in each chapter of the dissertation a distinctly queer approach to intermedial engagement. I anatomize how Crane’s obscure style transmediates mystic vision into a lyric artifice that is simultaneously expressive of homoerotic intensity and resistant to stigmatizing visibility. I contend that Hartley recuperates and revises Crane’s project by deploying a multimedia approach to elegy, allowing the painter from Maine to reconcile his queer identity and originary context. I show how Faulkner transitions from Eurocentric modes of abstraction to a lyricized social realism, whose uneasy centering of sexual and racial difference and whose resistance to normative regimes of aesthetic spatiotemporality place him, I argue, in homosocial allegiance with the regionalist painters Wood, Curry, and Benton. I demonstrate how the queer discontinuities of Bishop’s and Ashbery’s ekphrases puncture normative models of representational containment, and in the coda, how their visual art affirms aesthetic space as a sheltering reality that arises from and preserves queer life. Through these investigations, “Slow Tyrannies” assembles an array of queer visions and lyrical methods that transfigure the world and its representational orders.

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