The Ambiguous Century: Gender, “Movements,” and Ambiguity Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The subproject isolates three social and indentitarian “movements” that straddle two sides of a binary found across literary texts and genres of 19th-century American literature: Passing (whiteness and Blackness), Cross-dressing (male and female), and Transgressing (legality and crime). The identity shifts and transfers activated by the three movements are fictionalized through an aesthetic of ambiguity that this subproject sets out to illustrate. This study understands 19th-century literary ambiguity as a mode of reflection on raced and gendered bodies, as well as an interferential aesthetics. In fact, textual ambiguity in “The Ambiguous Century” presses against the limits of the binarization politics actuated in the 19th century that aimed to categorize and racialize, such as, among others, the Indian Removal Act, postbellum segregation, white supremacist pseudo-science, and the Cult of true Womanhood. Since the three movements, alone or in various combinations, are present across the 19th-century literary spectrum, the project will narrow down on works of fiction, both canonical and under-researched, where the three movements are present simultaneously and/or display significant interferences. This will enable reflections on how the movements magnify, dilute, overpower or facilitate each other, and what kind of ambiguity phenomena accompany them.