Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Joshua Schuster


This dissertation examines how early-to-mid twentieth century American poetry is preoccupied with objects that unsettle the divide between nature and culture. Given the entanglement of these two domains, I argue that American modernism is “dirty.” This designation leads me to sketch what I call “dirty modernism,” which includes the registers of waste, energy, animality, raciality, and the sensual. Reading these registers, I turn to what I call “ecological objects,” or representations of how nature and culture come together, which includes trash, natural resources, inanimals, and tools. Through an ecocritical mode of analysis, I introduce dirty modernism with the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. In chapter 1, I turn to William Carlos Williams’ relationship with waste and explore what it means to be a literary dumpster diver. In chapter 2, I explore the energy humanities and show how natural resources inform Gertrude Stein’s poetry. In chapter 3, I theorize what I call the “inanimal,” which registers the tension between life and death through an exploration of animal objecthood in a wide range of modernist poetry. In chapter 4, I read the work of Claude McKay, Sterling A. Brown, and Jean Toomer to investigate a crisis around the interchange of African American workers and their labour and tools. To conclude, I return to the Baroness and offer some final thoughts, which are followed by a coda on dirty modernism’s plastic futures.