Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Strands of Nonsense in American Literature

Dr. Emily Petermann


This project examines the migration of the literary mode of nonsense from England to the United States, focusing on several strands of American nonsense across periods, regions, genres, and audiences, including children’s nonsense, modernist poetry and prose, surrealist poetry, and theater of the absurd. The project treats nonsense as a case study in how a literary mode may cross national, regional, and generic borders, modifying its functions in interaction with local forms.

The primary research focus of this project is on how a literary mode that rose to prominence in one particular cultural context has traveled and changed in other historical, cultural, and generic contexts. Specifically, how has the mode of literary nonsense, though often characterized as essentially British and closely associated with the Victorian era and children’s literature of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, been transformed in the United States in successive generations and for a range of different audiences? To answer this question, the project will examine texts that can be linked with the mode of nonsense not only by virtue of formal stylistic features but also in regard to the effects they produce in their implied readers. Because nonsense challenges readers’ expectations of sense-making, it rewards a reader-response examination of how such challenges come about. The establishment of a rough typology of nonsense-related strategies and forms across periods, genres, and audiences will inform my analysis of the different functions of nonsense strategies in these various contexts. This project thus is important for an understanding of how concepts may travel and it contributes to a discussion about the specificity of American literary modes, by considering this “travelling concept” (Bal) in relation to American ideologies, genres, folk traditions, performance and publication practices, and networks of artists that have either supported or inhibited adoption of this borrowed mode.

As Alice suggests in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871), nonsense can be “rather hard to understand,” seemingly impenetrable, and yet “it seems to fill my head with ideas” (154). As nearly all scholars on nonsense have observed, nonsense does make a kind of sense, but it poses a unique interpretive challenge for the reader, since it is not superficially evident what that sense might be. In coming to terms with this literary mode, I draw on an established body of research into the field of literary nonsense, a poetic genre traced back to work by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear in 19th-century England and characterized by its play with language, with logic, and with semantics to produce unexpected and incongruous juxtapositions, literalizations of metaphor, and other “nonsense” (e.g. Sewell, Köhler, Tigges). Characteristics critics largely agree on include the rupture with conventions of language, logic, or empirical facts; humor; and a high degree of internal structure or patterning. I follow Wim Tigges’s observation that nonsense is characterized by the reader’s hesitation between a presumed absence of meaning and the suggestion of a multiplicity of meanings. Unlike Tigges, however, I do not restrict nonsense to a particular genre or narrow text corpus, but examine related strategies in various genres, periods, and styles, addressing both child and adult audiences.

Nonsense has been considered in relation to different implied audiences, most commonly children and “the child in the adult” but sometimes also an unstated but presumed adult audience. Those critics arguing for a serious treatment of nonsense seem to implicitly accept the widespread assumption that children’s literature is not worthy of serious study and thus, if nonsense is to be taken seriously, any trace of its direction towards children must be ignored or effaced. In this project, the different strands of nonsense in American literature clearly involve different implied audiences, ranging from an explicit child audience in the work of Eugene Field, Laura Richards, Nancy Willard, and Dr. Seuss to adult audiences in the surrealist poetry of Kenneth Patchen, Philip Lamantia, and James Tate and the absurd drama and prose of Edward Albee and Robert Coover. Other cases, however, are more ambiguous, with writers either addressing children in some works and adults in others (e.g., Carl Sandburg, Gertrude Stein) or with individual works addressing a mixed audience of children and adults (as in texts by James Whitcomb Riley, Edward Gorey, and others). The role of the implied audience, as well as the challenges of determining the audience of a particular body of work, will thus play a role in establishing the context in which nonsense appears and influences its functions.

The United States has developed several strains of home-grown nonsense literature that are distinctly American, often regional (see, e.g., the Midwestern nonsense of Riley and Sandburg). American nonsense texts are strongly influenced by local generic traditions and cultural contexts, as when orally-inspired nonsense literature exhibits features of the folk narrative known as the tall-tale, along with diction that incorporates regional dialect and contemporary slang, which serves to root the texts in a specific time and place. Another example is the use of jazz metaphors and techniques by black surrealist poets (e.g., Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Jayne Cortez) as a means of circumventing or supplementing rational verbal expression, which is a specifically African-American take on a concern raised by French surrealists a generation previously. The question of the cultural specificity of American nonsense is one that will carry through the separate analysis chapters to link the disparate strands of nonsense identified in this study, examining not only how nonsense develops along distinct paths, but also how American contexts – understood in the plural – inform and shape those developments.