English Professor Redefines Literature of the American Renaissance

August 23, 2018
Branka Arsic sitting at her desk with a stack of books and lit lamp

Photo by John Pinderhughes

Branka Arsić had an “aha” moment after reading the works of 19th-century American writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson. She started looking at the literary criticism on them and realized that she didn’t agree with much of it.

“It was a shock because I found in many instances that what I was seeing in these canonical authors, and what I thought they were saying, not many others saw,” said Arsić, the Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of English and Comparative Literature and director of the department’s graduate studies program. “For instance, many understood Emerson as proposing individualism, I thought the opposite; scholars pretty much agreed Emerson was an idealist, I thought he was a materialist, and so on.”

In a steady output of a half dozen books since arriving at Columbia in 2012, Arsić has systematically worked on reassessing the writers of the American Renaissance, the period between 1830 and the Civil War when American literature came of age as an expression of a national spirit. She has devoted her energies to developing an alternative point of view that pays special attention to the materialist aspect of their thinking and has also focused on how these authors reacted to the scientific and philosophical developments of the time, including their ethical critiques of the natural sciences and ecological debates.

Arsić’s path to these writers was circuitous. She grew up in Belgrade, Serbia and attended the University of Belgrade, eventually earning a doctorate in the history of philosophy. After leaving Serbia in 1998, she taught at Central European University in Budapest, then joined the faculty at the State University of New York in Albany. Her training in British Empiricism had already introduced her to the writings of early American philosophers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards (1703- 1758), an American Puritan who wrote a lot about natural philosophy.

Once at Columbia she began to investigate the broader influence of Edwards, which led her to Emerson.

“I was so smitten with Edwards that I moved on to Emerson and the other great 19th-century Americans, none of whom I’d read in Europe,” said Arsić. “I began to fall in love with them as a result of my research.”

In her latest book, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau, Arsić goes beyond the conventional wisdom that Thoreau was a poet in love with nature by showing how he developed a complex theory of life after his brother’s death in 1842.

“Thoreau’s theory of life argued against what was to become the dominant Darwinian evolutionist approach that would claim the strong survive,” said Arsić. “He developed a respect for the weak and the frail, literally the lowest forms of life from grass and insects to fish. But he was particularly obsessed with birds, and it was by studying avian forms of life that he came to formulate his vitalism. I saw a profound ethics in that view, in which there’s no standard of health that measures normalcy. Therefore, there’s nothing deviant or pathological.”

Bird Relics was awarded the Modern Language Association’s prestigious James Russell Lowell Prize for the best book of 2016 and was cited for its “subtle, consequential and original study that evades ruling academic paradigms.”

“Branka is a powerhouse. In a few short years at Columbia, she has revived the reputation of our pre-1865 American literature field,” said Alan Stewart, chair of the English department. “And, somehow, she finds time to continue to produce scholarship of the highest order.”

Next up are two more books—Dust Archives: Melville’s Poetics of Matter and Butterfly Tropics: Emily Dickinson, the Archive and the Lyric. In Dust Archives, Arsić examines Melville’s knowledge of the natural sciences and concludes that, unlike Thoreau and Emerson, Melville believed that our minds and actions are biologically predetermined. In Butterfly Tropics, she discusses the ethical connections she sees between Dickinson, Emerson and Thoreau. “Dickinson was influenced by them, so both her lyrics and philosophy articulate an ethical stance of extreme attention to what is small and evanescent,” she said.

This semester Arsić is teaching an undergraduate class on writers of the American Renaissance and a graduate seminar on Emily Dickinson. She finds that when she teaches this cluster of authors, her students get extra-involved.

“What really surprises them,” Arsić said, “is that deep in the origins of American ethics and values are things that are still relevant in this country today.”

—By Eve Glasberg