Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Soul Selects

Justin Isenhart.

Through an examination of several poems by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, as well as a number contemporaneous non-literary texts, this paper aims to situate these poets within a cultural context characterized at all levels by the rise of religious skepticism and the emergence of secular humanism as a means of articulating and defending a vision of moral and aesthetic value. Although neither could be considered a "believer" in any ordinary sense of the term, for both poets certain thematic preoccupations, imagery, and narratives derived from religious discourse remain absolutely central to their understandings of such concepts as inspiration, selfhood, suffering -- and of poetry itself. This paper will argue that the displacement of these concepts from their fixed status within institutionalized religion into the improvisatory realm of poetic creativity represents the founding moment of a truly American poetry -- one whose ambiguities and at times troubling implications remain very much with us today.


Justin Isenhart  (United States)
Doctoral Candidate
Department of English and American Language and Literature
Harvard University

Justin Isenhart is a graduate student in the Department of English at Harvard. He's currently working on a dissertation on American poetry.

  • Poetics
  • American Poetry
  • Religion
  • Secularization
  • Lyric
Person as Subject
  • Dickinson, Emily Whitman, Walt

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)