Theo Davis, professor of English, works on the nature of experience as it relates to literary critical practice.Her first book, Formalism, Experience and the Making of American Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), argued that nineteenth-century American writers conceived of the experience of reading as a realm of typical responses that was, itself, the true medium of literature. She also proposed such work be thought of as an “affective formalism,” one that looked to the structure and shape of responsive experience as a domain of aesthetic interest. Her second book, Ornamental Aesthetics: The Poetry of Attending in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Whitman (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016), built off of that approach to argue that ornamentation is a practice of honoring and attending, one that figures a particular way of being in relation to the world. Together, these books pay intense attention to the difference language makes, but always with an eye to that difference as it manifests in perception and behavior, or in the felt range of human experience.
Focusing on the connections between specific qualities of language and aspects of emotional, mental, and even bodily behavior is still more central to her new project, Sensations of Freedom: Somatics and Personal Development in American Literature. This project reevaluates the commitment to self-development at the heart of American literature. Professor Davis focuses upon individual embodiment as a site of transformation, looking at how authors experience the body and how they respond to problems of mobility, energy, and orientation by changing the body and being changed by it. Such personal somatic concerns are central to nineteenth-century accounts of liberty as the capacity to change. One of the theoretical ambitions of the project is to connect the commitments of a range of body-oriented modes of therapy (from somatics to sensorimotor trauma treatment) to literary studies, in order to make a new place within humanistic scholarship for the value and interest of thinking about human development and personal transformation.
- Ornamental Aesthetics: Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016)
- “Interpreting the Survey,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists Vol 4.1 (Spring 2016): 160-64
- “Hawthorne’s Rage: On Form and the Dharma,” in American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron, ed. Branka Arsiç (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
- “Opening Up Close Reading: Melville and Decorative Aesthetics,” in Melville and Aesthetics, ed. Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
- “Harriet Jacobs’s ‘Excrescences’: Aesthetics and Politics in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Theory & Event 13: 4 (2010): n.p.
- Formalism, Experience, and the Making of American Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Awards and Honors
- Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2018-2019) to support “Sensations of Freedom: Somatics and Personal Development in American Literature”
- “Ornamental Aesthetics” chosen 2017 Outstanding Academic Title, “Choice”