Sara Marcus, *18

Department of English

Political Disappointment: A Partial History of a Feeling (2018)


Political Disappointment argues that disappointment is a pivotal mode of desire in 20th-century U.S. culture. Disappointment can wear many affective guises, from dejection to defiance; on my reading, it is a mode of continuous longing for something that has become inaccessible, and as such it drives much of the century’s most enduring art, literature, and sound. Using disappointment as a hermeneutic lets us see connections between things that are usually discussed in isolation from each other—civil rights marches and 1980s theories about sexuality, for instance, or midcentury feminist fiction and post-Reconstruction transcriptions of African American music. Analyzing a robust interdisciplinary archive, Political Disappointment proposes a new history of American culture, of the 20th century, and of political desire itself.

The dissertation’s first chapter shows how Charles W. Chesnutt and W. E. B. Du Bois conceived of historical progress in the face of post-Reconstruction reversals in African Americans’ status. I uncover complex theorizations of time and progress in Du Bois’s treatment of the Sorrow Songs and in the temporalities of Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition. The second chapter sets Tillie Olsen’s short-story collection Tell Me a Riddle alongside Lead Belly’s worksongs to reconsider Popular Front culture as being marked by the simultaneous promulgation and disappointment of revolutionary desire. Further developing the political stakes of sound, the third chapter attends to a 1966 march during which disagreements between classical civil-rights proponents and advocates of Black Power played out as noisy contestations over what to chant and whether to sing at all. This chapter argues that new vantages on political movements are made available through a focus on nonmusical sounds, especially noise. The final chapter turns to feminist thought and literature of the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, focusing on theories of sexuality as well as the poetry and prose of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Hortense Spillers. Here I argue that the movement’s key innovations during this time—women of color feminism, sex-radical feminism, and feminist theory—are all registers of disappointment, and that they all contribute to a shift from voice to vision as feminism’s main metaphor.

Person Category