In these diverse essays, leading critics recast the place of aesthetics in the production and consumption of literature. Rethinking the category of aesthetics in light of recent developments in literary theory and social criticism, contributors showcase the interpretive possibilities available to those who bring politics, culture, ideology, and conceptions of identity into their critiques.
Deploying a distinctive range of methodologies, essays combine close readings of individual works and authors with more theoretical discussions of aesthetic theory and its relation to American literature. An introduction surveys the rise of a literary criticism based in aesthetics from the eighteenth century to its twentieth-century remaking in the wake of deconstruction, identity politics, and new historicism. The editors ultimately argue that aesthetics never really left American literary critique, even in the heyday of new historicism. Instead, they cast the current return to aesthetics” as the natural consequence of shortcomings in deconstruction and new historicism, which led to a reconfiguration of aesthetics. Subsequent essays demonstrate the value and versatility of aesthetic considerations in literature, from eighteenth-century poetry to twentieth-century popular music. Organized into four groups—politics, form, gender, and theory—they revisit the canonical works of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Stephen Crane, introduce the overlooked texts of Constance Fenimore Woolson and Earl Lind, and unpack the surprising complexities of the music of The Carpenters. Deeply rooted in an American context, these essays explore literature’s aesthetic dimensions in connection to American liberty and the formation of political selfhood, and they conclude with the ethical implications of reading and representation.