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The Power of Smell in American Literature

Odor, Affect, and Social Inequality


Daniela Babilon

Offering a thoroughly new approach to American literature, this book examines the literary representation of smell regarding its impact on establishing and subverting power structures. Although smell carries an enormous affective potential, it has been largely – but unjustly – overlooked in literary and cultural studies. Through her innovative close readings of works by authors such as Melville, Whitman, Equiano, Wilkins Freeman, Faulkner, Morrison, or Ellison, the author shows how smell stereotypes are used to discriminate against people and how odor references serve to undermine oppressive power structures. For this purpose, the author traces the cultural history of odor and combines insights from fields such as critical race, gender, intersectionality, trauma, and affect theories.

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4 From the Depreciation of Smell to Its Subversive Embrace: Transcendentalism and the American Renaissance


4 From the Depreciation of Smell to Its Subversive Embrace: Transcendentalism and the American Renaissance

This chapter now aims to shed light on the slowly growing attention the motif of smell gained in the white canonical literature from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. For this purpose, the rather subordinate role of literary smell references in Transcendentalism will be discussed first. This will then be followed by the complex interconnections between a growing fear of and intolerance towards smells in the public sphere on the one hand and the revaluation of the smell motif in the literature of major American Renaissance writers on the other.

4.1 Scent and Transcendence: Odor Allusions in Transcendentalism

Even though odors mattered a lot in the people’s everyday lives in the eighteenth century around the time of the olfactory revolution, in the (canonical, white) literature of the time they do not play a major role. It has already been shown that in Puritan literatures smell references mainly occurred in figurative ways as means to express god’s spirit and divinity. The American Transcendentalists largely continued this relative avoidance of the literary motif of smell and positioned themselves within the philosophies of the Enlightenment thinkers, especially the theories of Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s reasoning echoes Descartes’s devaluation of the senses as a means of attaining knowledge in turning against John Locke’s previous postulations on the dualism of mind and body. Locke, as one of the founding figures of ‘sensationalism,...

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