Thomas W. Howard

I earned my PhD in English & American literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where I defended my dissertationPragmatic Ambiguities: Aphoristic Thinking in the American Nineteenth Century—on April 19, 2023. I specialize in nineteenth-century American literature, focusing on the non-fiction writing from the American Transcendentalists and Pragmatists. My research focuses on writers who appear in this century on the periphery of various emerging disciplines, especially the empirical life and psychological sciences. These writers, I argue, use features of the aphorism, like incompleteness, suggestiveness, and the encouragement of constant readerly engagement and interpretation—features typically seen as poetic—in their unique prose.

In my current book project, The Centrifugal Aphorism, I identify and examine this stream of aphoristic thought among an interconnected group of American writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William James, and W. E. B. Du Bois. All of these writers use the aphorism to engage readers in an unending process of interpretation, spiraling outward in new and creative directions. In defining the aphorism, I point to the German-language tradition of Aphorismus (as distinct from Sentenz: the “sentences” or maxims, especially of the French moralists) to identify in the form an inherent evasiveness and ambiguity. Along the way, I draw on the extensive history of the aphorism—from the medical writings of Hippocrates to the scientific hypotheses of Francis Bacon—to situate the form among science studies, affect theory, and a wide range of transnational theories of the aphorism.

Upcoming Events

July 9–12, 2023 (Portland, OR): I will be presenting the paper “Journalistic Ecology: ‘Radicle Empiricism’ in Thoreau’s Journal Manuscript,” at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). This paper will be partially based on work conducted at The Huntington Library on a short-term fellowship earlier this year. An accessible PDF of the talk will be posted here.

January 4–7, 2024 (Philadelphia, PA): I will be presenting the paper “Feeling Thoreau’s Radicle Empiricism” at the Modern Language Association (MLA). This will be part of the panel “Affective Thoreau / Thoreauvian Affects” sponsored by the Thoreau Society.