E. Thomas Finan on Reading Reality
New publication by E. Thomas Finan (CGS humanities) – Reading Reality: Nineteenth Century American Experiments in the Real (University of Virginia Press 2021)
Reading Reality: Nineteenth Century American Experiments in the Real by E. Thomas Finan, College of General Studies Senior Lecturer in Humanities, was recently published by the University of Virginia Press. The book details the perception of reality in early nineteenth century American writing. A fiction writer himself, Finan’s newest work is inspired by his own experience with the “transformative potential of literature.”
Focusing on the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, Finan challenges the prevailing assumption that pre-Civil War literature was predominantly idealistic. He demonstrates that antebellum authors considered their writing to be grounded in reality, often using the very word “real” to describe their work. Finan explains that such authors appealed to reality “as a vehicle for gaining a new, sharper view of experience.” But rather than limiting themselves to a strictly material definition of reality, these authors explored the human experience in metaphysical and experimental ways that were no less genuine.
Finan’s work was inspired by a line in Emerson’s essay “the Poet,” which reads, “this is the reward [of poetry]; that the ideal shall be real to thee, and the impressions of the actual world shall fall like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome to thy invulnerable essence.” Here, Emerson ties the “real” to the reward of poetry. In conducting further research, Finan found that it was common for antebellum writers to connect realness to literature.
Finan’s work has fascinating implications for our modern understanding of reality. While antebellum critics worried that literature was a distraction from reality, Finan reveals how early nineteenth century authors did not limit their sense of realness to the physical world. Instead, they considered the spiritual and individual experience to be of equal importance to tangible elements. In the same vein of complicating notions of reality, if we turn our gaze to the contemporary scene, modern technology further complicates our understanding of reality versus physicality. Finan points out that “reality” television is accepted as artificial, while virtual reality technology provides experiences that we know are not physically occurring. Finan’s work expands the definition of “reality,” underlining what this distinction teaches us about literature and human experience.
Reading Reality reveals the ways that nineteenth century American writers promoted engagement with, not flight from, experience. Finan explains that his work shows us how “reading poems, plays, and novels might less be a distraction from the ‘real world’ and more a vehicle for gaining a new view of the world and ourselves.” Reading Reality therefore contributes to the ongoing discussion of the role of the humanities in understanding our world.
The publication of Reading Reality received support from the Boston University Center for the Humanities.