Democratic Demographics: A Literary Genealogy of American Sustainability
Goode, Abby L.
Doctor of Philosophy
“Democratic Demographics” charts an American literary history of sustainability. It argues that sustainability, often considered a contemporary and global concept, comes from an early American ideal of agricultural plenty, epitomized in the agrarian writing of Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. As U.S. writers developed and reshaped this ideal throughout the nineteenth century, they conceived of sustainability as the ability to feed and breed a racially homogeneous, American farming population. Spanning from 1773 to 1920, “Democratic Demographics” traces this racial and eugenic notion of sustainability across familial romances, gothic novels, black nationalist tracts, global poetry, and feminist utopias. From Herman Melville’s ghost-written agricultural report to Walt Whitman’s poems of crop renewal, these texts portray racial improvement and eugenic breeding as the key to agricultural and demographic abundance. Exposing the American literary roots of global population discourses, “Democratic Demographics” identifies an early, racial notion of sustainability that persists from Jefferson’s agrarianism to Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationism. Democratic Demographics” traces the transformation of American sustainability into a global ideal. It shows how writers imagined racially perfected, sustainable “American” societies beyond U.S borders—in spaces such as the West Indies, the Suez Canal, and the heart of the Amazon. Exposing the racial and reproductive underpinnings of U.S agrarianism, the first two chapters examine inversions of Jefferson’s small farming ideal in Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852) and Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (1808)—dystopian novels that portray overpopulation through racial and sexual degeneracy. Expanding agrarianism’s geographical scope, chapter three analyzes the black nationalist writings of Martin Delany and Sutton Griggs, as they envision all-black utopias on the eastern coast of Africa and the Texas borderlands. Following this geographically expansive trend, chapter four traces Walt Whitman’s development of eugenic agrarianism—a discourse that adapts American sustainability to a global context. The final chapter reveals how Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian novels regenerate a sustainable America in a eugenic, all-female utopia that escapes a crowded globe. “Democratic Demographics” thus uncovers sustainability’s legacy as a racially complex and geographically portable “New World” agrarian ideal—one that writers forged long before the 1987 UN Brundtland Report defined sustainability.