American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

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Judith P. Saunders

Series: Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts
ISBN: 9781618117656 (hardcover) / 9781618117663 (paperback)
Pages: 302 pp.
Publication Date: July 2018

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The inaugural book in ASP's new Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts series, this collection of essays examines selected works in the American literary tradition from an evolutionary perspective. Using an interdisciplinary framework to pose new questions about long admired, much discussed texts, the collection as a whole provides an introduction to Darwinian literary critical methodology. Individual essays feature a variety of figures—Benjamin Franklin to Billy Collins—targeting fitness-related issues ranging from sexual strategies and parental investment to cheating and deception. Attention is paid to the physical and social environments in which fictional characters are placed, including the influence of cultural–historical conditions on resource acquisition, status-building, competition, and reciprocity. Discussion throughout the volume makes connections to existing secondary comment, suggesting how Darwinian scrutiny can generate unexpected insights into long familiar works.

Judith P. Saunders is Professor of English at Marist College in New York State. She is the author of The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson: Border Lines and Reading Edith Wharton through a Darwinian Lens: Evolutionary Biological Issues in Her Fiction.

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American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives is a very interesting and discerning study, cogently argued, well-written, propelled by Saunders’s knowledge of theory and research in evolutionary biology, post-Darwin. She has made a noteworthy contribution to evolutionary criticism, and, more, generally, to our understanding of American literary and cultural history. American Classics also has important—and controversial—implications for scholarship and teaching. … In American Classics, Saunders sets out, with special skill and distinction, an array of textual interpretations, close readings of American authors, a detailed series of model case studies that are stimulating and persuasive. She convinces me that her approach can make familiar literary texts feel new, reanimating them, impelling us to peruse and ponder them in a new light. … I look forward to the next stage of her research, and to the new directions in the field of evolutionary literary criticism that she is expertly helping to chart and explore.
— William E. Cain, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1
As Saunders makes clear at the outset, her aim is to offer ‘an accessible introduction to Darwinian literary critical methodology in tandem with new insights into acknowledged classics’ (x). This is precisely what she does with admirable clarity and grace. To assist readers not familiar with Darwinian methodology, Saunders provides a succinct glossary of essential terms that matches up nicely with the general approach she spells out in her brief, well-focused introduction. … Teachers seeking to shake up predictable discussions of classic works will find Saunders’s interpretations immensely useful and entertaining. This is not to suggest that Saunders is not a serious scholar whose work contributes to literary scholarship. Quite the contrary, her essays are carefully researched, articulate additions to American literary naturalism that offer important insights into the evolutionary forces that inform literary texts. … Readers will find American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives every bit as thought provoking as it is delightful.
— Paul Crumbley, Utah State University, Studies in American Naturalism Vol. 13, No. 2
Judith Saunders’s book shows just how good evolutionary literary criticism can be. She convincingly demonstrates that an evolutionary critic can generate new insights about literary works to which many generations of scholars have already devoted critical attention. Moreover, she unites a fine literary sensibility with special gifts for writing forceful and evocative prose. Her book belongs to that very small set of interpretive critical works that give specifically literary pleasure in their own right.
— Joseph Carroll, Curators' Professor of English, University of Missouri—St. Louis, editor in chief of Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture

Table of Contents


1. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: The Story of a Successful Social Animal
2. Nepotism in Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”
3. Biophilia in Thoreau’s Walden
4. Bateman’s Principle in “Song of Myself”: Whitman Celebrates Male Ardency
5. Maladaptive Behavior and Auctorial Design: Huck Finn’s Pap
6. Hell’s Fury: Female Mate-Retention Strategies in Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed and Ethan Frome
7. Male Reproductive Strategies in Sherwood Anderson’s “The Untold Lie”
8. The Great Gatsby: An Unusual Case of Mate-Poaching
9. Female Sexual Strategies in the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay
10. Philosophy and Fitness: Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and The Sun Also Rises
11. Paternal Confidence in Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits”
12. The Role of the Arts in Male Courtship Display: Billy Collins’s “Serenade”