Paper #6: An Interdisciplinary, Teaching-based Approach to Literary Studies

KEY TERMS: formalism; history; canon; novel; ephemera; rhetoric; Richardson; feminism; interdisciplinarity; generalist; teaching

History

For me, literary studies is necessarily an interdisciplinary field. How can I understand Sir Charles Grandison without understanding the life of Samuel Richardson? How can I understand Richardson without understanding the society that shaped him? A rich understanding of literature, then, is necessarily bound to history, but traditionally, literary scholars have leaned toward formalism and have scorned “mere causal investigation,” or historical approaches (Underwood 13). Formalists argue that really, all that matters is the text on the page, but even some formalist views are evolving to encompass history and biography. John Richetti, for example, who argues that “the main [task] of literary studies” is to analyze the literary works themselves, and that literary scholars should see literature as “distinct from other linguistic and cultural practices within its particular historical context” (157), acknowledges that the eighteenth-century novel is irrevocably intertwined with the culture that produced it, and so he favors “a new, historically oriented formalism” (159).

Rhetoric

I go a step further than goes Richetti. In addition to studying the historical context of the period, I wish to study the works of the period that have been traditionally ignored. Novels, poetry, and drama have been the accepted objects of study since the inception of English literary studies in the mid-eighteenth century (Miller 1-2), but, as the field is driven by progressive intellectuals, literary studies has questioned the literary canon for quite some time. I am not breaking new ground here. Yet, while it has become more mainstream to teach the novels, plays, and poems of marginalized and disenfranchised authors, marginalized and disenfranchised genres have not quite been brought into the fold. I acknowledge that my literary loyalties belong first with novels: My favorite works are all novels, and the novel plays a special role in eighteenth century studies, as this is the period when it became prolific. But I cannot in good conscience devote all of my intellectual energy to novels when so many important ephemeral works were published at the same time (including maps, it-narratives, trade cards, dictionaries, newspapers, tickets, travelogues, and suicide notes, among almost anything else you might imagine). Traditionally, literary scholars have considered these materials obsolete, “textual materials that may have been valued by someone at some time for some reason, but are without ‘enduring literary value’ now” (McDowell 48). After all, ephemera “is the plural of the Greek ephemeron, meaning something that lasts only for a day” (McDowell 53). Yet times are changing. How can scholars of eighteenth-century literature ignore the most prolific texts of the period (McDowell)?

I believe that I must thank the field of rhetoric for my questioning of the canon and for my appreciation of ephemeral works. For whom were these texts written? In what ways did they interact with other texts and with their intended audience? These are rhetorical questions that I think literary scholars must ask. Notably, Richardson, to whose works I have already begun to devote myself, was a printer, and the ephemeral works he printed no doubt influenced his work. (In fact, his first published writing was a collection of didactic letters, which he revised to create his wildly popular Pamela.) The connectedness of ephemeral works and novels is rhetorically fascinating, merging together not only history and culture with literature, but literature with rhetoric, as well. (And, indeed, composition—Richardson was known for his very conscious and audience-based writing and revision.)

Richardson cared deeply about audience perceptions of his work, and he had a trusted circle of readers who gave their opinions on new pieces. Engraving by Miss Highmore (a member of Richardson's circle).
Richardson cared deeply about audience perceptions of his work, and he had a trusted circle of readers who gave their opinions on new pieces. Here he reads his manuscript of Sir Charles Grandison aloud to his friends.
Engraving by Miss Highmore (a member of Richardson’s circle) in 1751.

In the early days of English studies, rhetoricians taught both English literature and composition. In his introductory chapter to English Studies, Bruce McComiskey explains that rhetoric, after all, had been a respected field, considered “the foundation of a liberal education” (5) in Europe since the time of the ancient Greeks and through the Middle Ages in England. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, rhetoric fell out of favor and was seen as wholly pragmatic. Now, rhetoric is a rightfully respected field, but it’s still seen as clearly distinct from literary studies. I think that rhetoric and literature both suffer from such a distinction. Each field is interesting on its own, but combining these fields opens a world of intellectual possibility.

Feminism

Obviously, I reject strict formalism, as I believe most modern literary scholars do. Formalism has slowly been falling out of favor since the 1970s due to the increasing faculty diversity that has led to the increasing inclusion of gender, cultural, and race theories in the field (Elias 223). My disavowal of formalism makes way for my guiding theory: feminism. Feminism is logically linked with eighteenth century studies, as the eighteenth century was a pivotal time for women, especially in relation to the novel. The lapse of the 1662 Printing Act led to a drastic increase of printed materials, ultimately leading to a middle class that was educated due to cheap print literacy. This meant that women, too, had easier access to printed materials, and they also had easier access to publishing. This explains the increase in published female authors, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century (notable examples include Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth); perhaps because so many readers were women, even male authors, like Richardson, tended to focus their novels on female protagonists. Due to women’s relationship to eighteenth-century literature, then, feminist theory is essential to understanding the literature and culture of the period.

Interdisciplinarity

I believe that any modern scholar of eighteenth century literature must go beyond formalism, the canon, and even literature itself. Whether this interdisciplinarity is an intersection with cultural studies, rhetoric, creative writing, or another related field, interdisciplinarity is a must. Specialization is dying and making way for the generalist. Dr. Laura Buchholz explains:

On the whole, universities are devoting fewer and fewer tenure lines for specific period specialization lines. If you look on the MLA job list for example, you will see some ads for period specialist- Medieval, early modern, 18th century etc.  However look closely and you will see how many of these span what used to be multiple periods-  for example, 10 years ago a university might have a Romantics specialist, a Victorianist, and an early 20th century modernist-  today these positions are combined quite often into a “Long 19th century.” Similarly I recently saw one ad where the school wanted either a professor with a specialization in either 18th or 19th century lit who could teach courses in both centuries.

My interview with Dr. Buchholz was enlightening. A period specialization is still “deeply entrenched,” but a scholar who focuses only on a period may be seen as irrelevant; instead, Dr. Buchholz says:

Universities are looking for period specialists, with supplements—so you find an Early Modern scholar who also does digital humanities, a Modernist who works in narratology, a Victorianist who also does gender studies etc. As a result, departments are getting an eclectic mix of specialties where individual scholars wear many hats, become more and more interdisciplinary and, as a result I believe, produce some very interesting work that is far less rooted in a particular “period” than it might have been a decade ago.

These scholars, then, are generalists, and a generalist needn’t be someone who has only a topical knowledge of many different subjects or who is simply the “product of a withering job market” (“2 Literary Generalists”). Instead, a generalist is someone who has a deep understanding of how different fields, subfields, and bodies of knowledge connect. I looked to The Chronicle to understand views of the English generalist, and I found an interesting account of Paige Reynolds’s experience. Instead of focusing on a specific period from the beginning of her graduate studies, she decided to study whatever struck her fancy. Instead of hurting her, she claims that this actually made her a more attractive professorial candidate: “[M]y ambivalence about an academic career shaped my tenure as a graduate student in ways that appear to have made me a stronger applicant. Here’s what I learned on my job hunt: Disregard [s]trategy and [d]o [w]hat [y]ou [l]ove.” She adds:

[O]ne piece of advice I’ll offer based on my experience is to try to pitch your research project toward a few different areas. One chapter on women won’t land you a position directing the women’s studies program at your dream college, but if you can demonstrate competence in different arenas, all the better. I had a distinctly Irish dissertation, which made me ripe for Irish-studies positions. But I didn’t want to preclude more generalist positions in 20th-century British literature, so I taught modern British literature surveys and published a paper on Wyndham Lewis to demonstrate to hiring committees that I could teach and produce research on topics outside of Ireland.

I want to dedicate myself to studying literature, but I don’t want to get so wrapped up in novels and poetry that I neglect ephemeral, marginalized works or the political and social movements of the period, and I don’t want to become so absorbed in the dominant culture of the eighteenth century that I neglect colonialism.

I recognize that these ideas are all interconnected; I see my job as a scholar to make meaning of this connectedness.

Teaching

But I’m not making meaning only for myself. I want to write—what English major doesn’t?—and I want to publish, but, as I am a community college instructor, teaching is at the forefront of my duties and desires. Traditionally, Jacques Berlinerblau says, humanities professors “are fanatically and fatally turned inward. We think and labor alone. We write for one another”; an English studies generalist, however, is a scholar “who translates material not on the page, but through exciting teaching” (“2 Literary Generalists”), because “conveying knowledge is as much a part of our craft as attaining it is” (Berlinblau).

That’s where I am now. I enjoy digging deeply into eighteenth-century literary issues in my writing, but the deepest sense of fulfillment comes when I’m able to find connections and introduce the material to my students. I teach at a community college; I know that very few of my students will ever even consider becoming English majors. (I’ve been teaching for five years and not one of my students has majored—or minored—in English.) But I try to find ways to meaningfully engage my students in literature, and I often do so using interdisciplinary approaches.

For example, I (briefly) introduce students to literary theory in my Introduction to Literature course (which also doubles as the second part of my school’s FYC sequence). One theory we discuss is feminism, and I always find it exciting to introduce my students to Mary Astell’s rhetorical power via snippets of Some Reflections upon Marriage. I’m able to use this as an opportunity to teach the syllabus-mandated literary theory, to help students apply the theory to literature we read in class, and to show students ways to compose powerful prose of their own.

To my mind, this is exactly the sort of skill my generalist track at ODU will help build. As teachers, we have all had those class sessions when everything just fits; one subject flawlessly segues into another, then another, then another, and the teacher and students alike all have a better understanding of each subject than they would if the subjects were taught in isolation. That seems to be what interdisciplinarity is about—covering vast ground in order to understand deep connections—, and it’s those moments that I want to work hard in this program to create both for myself and for my students.

So who am I as a scholar? Where do I see myself fitting into English studies? I want to cross boundaries, but I don’t want to do it alone. For me, studying literature is not an act of introversion. I want to bring my students along with me. My best work, I think, won’t be found on the shelf of a prestigious library, but in the words and ideas exchanged with my students every day when we step into our shared classroom space.

I want to be a historian, rhetorician, and feminist, but above all, I want to be a teacher.

Works Cited

2 Literary Generalists Prepare to Defend Themselves in a Book.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 Jun. 1997. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Berlinerblau, Jacques. “Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Buchholz, Laura. Personal interview. 20 Sept. 2015.

Elias, Amy J. “Critical Theory and Cultural Studies.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana: NCTE, 2006. Print. 223-274.

McDowell, Paula. “Of Grubs and Other Insects: Constructing the Categories of Ephemera and Literature in Eighteenth Century British Writing.” Book History 15 (2012): 48-70. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

Miller, Thomas. The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Provinces. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1997. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

Reynolds, Paige. “The Academic Job Market: A Guide for the Ambivalent.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 Jun. 2000. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Richetti, John. “Formalism and Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 24.2 (2012): 157-160. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

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Paper #5: A Feminist Epistemology

KEY TERMS: epistemological alignment; feminist epistemology; eighteenth century; Samuel Richardson; Mary Astell; cultural studies; rhetoric; ephemera

When I applied to ODU, I looked at the emphases I could use to describe myself in my application letter: literary and cultural studies, rhetoric and composition, and new media. My selection was easy: I enjoy studying literature, and I teach composition. I didn’t know how these would connect—or, actually, if they would connect—in the program, but I knew these were my interests.

Throughout this semester, I’ve discovered that my scholarly interests converge much more neatly than I would have expected, and I think this is all because of my epistemological alignment (which I have known for years but didn’t have the language or drive to articulate until now). My eighteenth-century study, focus on the novel, research of ephemera, interest in early feminism, and recognition of rhetoric all seem to stem from my feminist epistemology.

As a scholar of the eighteenth century, it makes sense that I have a feminist epistemology. I began serious study of the eighteenth century after reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), which demonstrated to me the true power of a novel. But in order to really understand Clarissa’s plight, I needed to better understand eighteenth century womanhood and marriage. That led me to the early English feminists, particularly Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Astell’s 1700 Some Reflections Upon Marriage, in particular, opened my eyes to not only the culture of eighteenth-century England, but also the power of rhetoric. This was a text that I read time and time again; I was mesmerized by Astell’s facility with language as she cut through complex social issues to get to the heart of the matter. For example, Astell explains that a wife must be a woman “who can be so truly mortify’d as to lay aside her own Will and Desires, to pay such an intire Submission for Life, to one whom she cannot be sure will always deserve it” (89). Further, Astell explains, a wife “must follow all [her husband’s] Paces, and tread in all his unreasonable steps, or there is no Peace . . . for her, she must obey with the greatest exactness, ’tis in vain to expect any manner of Compliance on his side, and the more she complies the more she may; his fantastical humours grow with her desire to gratifie them” (28). Astell is famous neither for poetry nor novels, and so her name may be overlooked in a survey course, and what a shame; this is exactly the sort of text a student must read in order to truly appreciate the literature and culture of the eighteenth century.

Mary Astell (1666-1731) was considered the first English feminist; no study of eighteenth-century literature is complete without an understanding of Astell.

There are, indeed, works that are entirely ignored in the survey course that deserve attention. In addition to novels and lengthy feminist tracts, my objects of study include ephemera. Due to the lapsed Printing Act of 1662, printing became significantly easier at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and most eighteenth-century publications were “religious, political, didactic, topical works, and . . . pamphlets”—not more “literary” works like fiction and poetry (McDowell 53). These short works were the ones being published with most frequency, so how can a scholar of the eighteenth century ignore them? With each new paper I’ve written this semester, I’ve learned that, as a researcher, I lean pretty far over into the cultural studies realm of “literary and cultural studies.” My undergraduate work was strictly literary—we were formalists through and through because formalism was all we knew—but while writing my MA thesis, I began truly to research for the first time. Of course, I had found sources for papers before, but I hadn’t spent months or years on a project of my own design, diving into library stacks, digital archives, and even the wretched microfiche collections.

As I dove into the world of independent research, I learned that there were seemingly infinite resources that went beyond the literary criticism with which I was familiar. I spent most of my research time reading authors’ personal correspondence, but I also read eighteenth-century pamphlets, newspapers, and, my favorite, a scanned copy of an eighteenth-century midwife’s diary. I turned to historically-rich feminist books that explained and analyzed marriage and motherhood during the eighteenth century, and I read medical journals that explained the processes and expectations of eighteenth-century childbirth and breastfeeding. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I would read books cover-to-cover that would ultimately never make their way into my thesis. And that was okay, because I learned that the beauty of scholarship isn’t in going to the printing shop to have the thesis bound (that’s the bittersweet part). The enriching part of the exercise is finding, reading, learning—researching.

As I ponder, then, my epistemological alignment, or how I view myself as a researcher, I see myself as someone who will not discount a source because it doesn’t fit into a prescribed plan. Simply out of personal preference, I turn first to novels, but novels are only one small part of culture, and every piece of ephemera I discovered in my thesis research helped me better understand the culture that produced the novels I wanted to study. No text was irrelevant, no pamphlet too short. I am not only a scholar of literature. I am a scholar of literary studies, and, according to Richard C. Taylor, “The term literary studies, to which some professors of literature object, implies plurality, interdisciplinarity, and transition” (199). On the note of interdisciplinarity scholars, Matthew T. Pifer explains that “knowledge is produced among the intersections of disciplines and subdisciplines, rather than from sustained research in only one specialized field” (190). It seems, then, that I’m right on track: I am a scholar of literature, culture, and rhetoric, and feminism is the glue that binds my ideas into one unified epistemology.

Works Cited

Astell, Mary. Some Reflections Upon Marriage. UPenn.org. University of Pennsylvania, 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

McDowell, Paula. “Of Grubs and Other Insects: Constructing the Categories of Ephemera and Literature in Eighteenth Century British Writing.” Book History 15 (2012): 48-70. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

Pifer, Matthew T. “On the Border: Theorizing the Generalist.” Transforming English Studies: New Voices in an Emerging Genre. Ed. Lori Ostergaard, Jeff Ludwig, and Jim Nugent. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor, 2009. Print. 179-194.

Taylor, Richard C. “Literature and Literary Criticism.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006. Print.

Paper #4: Uniting a Cacophony of Theories

KEY TERMS: literary theories; cultural studies; reader response theory; New Historicism; formalism; feminist theory; multicultural theory; race theory; literary criticism; critical theory; eighteenth century; novel; Printing Act; cheap print literacy; Frances Burney; Maria Edgeworth; Samuel Richardson; Henry Fielding; ephemera; object of study; biography; periodization

Many English studies undergraduates are introduced to literary theories by the end of their studies. My focus had always been literary studies, but even then, I wasn’t introduced to theories like Marxism, New Historicism, and psychoanalysis until my capstone course (English 461: Literary Criticism). In the course, we looked less at novels and poems than at the dense theoretical essays in David Richter’s The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. (Interestingly, this was also my first taste of rhetoric via Plato and Aristotle—I credit my joining of these English studies fields to the texts we studied in English 461.) I must also thank this capstone course for my introduction to cultural studies; the final project involved analyzing any cultural text (it could be a novel or poem, but it could also be anything else we wished to analyze) using any theory we’d learned. I had spent years writing essays about novels, and though that’s still my favorite subject, I chose to challenge myself by analyzing Mattel’s Barbie using reader response theory (and Stanley Fish’s “How to Tell a Poem When You See One”) and New Historicism (specifically Stephen Greenblatt). Interestingly, although I’d had four years of literary writing, I had never understood literature as clearly as I did after I analyzed a children’s doll.

But if I hadn’t learned any of those theories until my final course at Longwood University, what had I been doing for four years? Most of my courses focused on the close reading of the formalists (like Cleanth Brooks—someone who obviously helped shaped my undergraduate learning experience, but whose name I didn’t learn until that experience came to a close). In addition to my work with formalism, I had experience with feminist theory, and I’d also taken a couple of courses that emphasized multicultural and race theories. Analyzing the texts themselves, though, was at the forefront of every literature class I had taken.

In this regard, my experience was not unique. My classes up until English 461 focused on literary criticism, which Amy J. Elias distinguishes from critical theory in “Critical Theory and Cultural Studies”: “literary criticism investigates how or why texts formally signify or ‘mean,’ while critical theory identifies how texts culturally or ideologically signify or ‘mean’” (225). Put another way, “[i]f literary criticism analyzes texts, critical theory analyzes literary criticism” (225). Therefore, it makes sense that formalism is the norm in undergraduate literary courses. After all, how can a student grasp critical theory without first understanding literary criticism?

Still, critical theory has gained a foothold in literary studies. To explain this, Elias cites Louis Montrose, who has stated that increasing faculty diversity since the 1970s is directly related to the increasing inclusion of gender, cultural, and race studies in literary studies classrooms (223). Perhaps this is why all of my eighteenth-century courses kept feminist theory nearby, even though formalism remained strongly at the forefront. The eighteenth century was a pivotal time for women, especially in relation to the novel. As I discussed in Paper #3, the lapse of the 1662 Printing Act led to a drastic increase of printed materials, ultimately leading to a middle class that was educated due to cheap print literacy. This meant that women, too, had easier access to printed materials, and they also had easier access to publishing. We see this in the increase in published female authors, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century (notable examples include Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth), but we also see an increase in the novel form, which often focused on female characters (like Pamela, Clarissa, and Evelina) and was thoroughly enjoyed by English women. Due to women’s relationship to eighteenth-century literature, feminist theory is essential to understanding the literature and culture of the period.

For example, property is often an in-road to understanding power structures, so it makes sense that April London explores the relationship of female agency and property in Women and Property in the Eighteenth-century Novel. Ultimately, London explains, women have “dual relations to property”: women exercise “intrinsic meaning . . . as possessors of their own persons” and property, but ultimately women are legally “the property of father and husband” (6), and this duality is expressed via the plot of the typical eighteenth-century novel. This feminist look at eighteenth-century notions of property is especially interesting in light of my earlier look at objects and artifacts. Eighteenth-century colonialism and trade make the prevalence of “things” an object of study in itself, but an important note London makes is that women, too, were “things” of the period, and because of this, using feminist theory is essential when attempting to understand eighteenth-century culture. In fact, many contemporary scholars, in a very New Historicist way, would argue that it is impossible to fully grasp the significance of eighteenth-century literature without understanding the culture in which it was created—and vice versa.

Yet in “Formalism and Eighteenth-Century Fiction,” John Richetti complains that eighteenth-century literary studies has become “an extreme version of cultural studies,” which has deviated from or even contradicted what he sees “as the main [task] of literary study,” which is analyzing literature using formalism (157). Literary studies, says Richetti, should go beyond culture; literary scholars should see literature as “distinct from other linguistic and cultural practices within its particular historical context” (157). But Richetti recognizes that eighteenth-century literature was steeped in the greater culture even during the period; novels, after all, “were part of an emerging consumer culture, a response to audience needs as they were perceived” (158). For example, “Samuel Richardson . . . set out to moralize popular amatory fiction, [and] . . . Henry Fielding . . . began his career as a novelist by parodying Richardson’s novels” (158). Because of these historical complexities, Richetti himself isn’t sure how to separate the culture from the literature—he just argues that it needs to be done.

When Richetti asked contributors to Eighteenth-Century Fiction to find a way that scholars of the period can revive formalism, he discovered that the “extreme cultural studies [he] worried about has retreated” and that “a new, historically oriented formalism is emerging” (159). This is not the strict formalism of the New Critics; with the eighteenth-century novel, too much is lost by looking only at the words on the page. Even Richetti recognizes the mandatory intersection of literature and history in the eighteenth-century novel, but Richetti argues for a formal theory that uses history merely as a tool to dig deeper into the literary form (rather than the reverse). But more important than history, Richetti notices, is biography: Based on contributions to this special issue, Richetti notes “that each novelist can be said to develop his or her own sense of form,” so “[w]e must speak not of one principle of formal narrative organization but of many” (160).

While I recognize the importance of formal analysis of texts, I can’t help but look beyond the words on the page—and look at pages that formal literary scholars might dismiss, like ephemera. What English 461 and every subsequent course—including this one—have reinforced is that literature does not exist in a vacuum, and there are historical events, trends, and publications that are rich with meaning that should not be overlooked. How can we understand a text’s true impact if we ignore reactions to it? How can we appreciate the full impact of a tragic literary passage if we ignore the biographical context that inspired the scene? While periodization is slowly falling out of favor, it at least organizes texts in a way that makes it easier for students to understand how a work fits into the larger context of a nation’s—or the world’s—literature.

Periodization isn’t perfect, but from my research this semester, I don’t believe any course structure is. I do think, though, that no matter how professors frame their courses, there must be variety, both in terms of course structure and theoretical content. In response to the problems of periodization, Eric Hayot suggests that we “develop and seek to institutionalize a variety of competing concepts, including transperiodizing ones, for the study of literary history. . . . The goal is finally not to have one approach, but many” (742; 748). “My argument,” Hayot writes, “is not that everyone should teach such courses, but that students might learn things (as I did) if some of us taught such courses some of the time” (751). Likewise, different courses should utilize various critical theories to provide variety and depth to the standard curriculum.

Understanding formalism is integral to writing literary criticism, but additional theories might help readers discover additional layers of meaning in a text (and culture). Close reading is necessary, but we must be careful not to allow this to become what Sharon A. Beehler calls closed reading. As universities become more diverse, how can we justify silencing any voices?


Works Cited

Beehler, Sharon A. “Close vs. Closed Reading.” The English Journal 77.6 (1988): 39-43. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Elias, Amy J. “Critical Theory and Cultural Studies.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana: NCTE, 2006. Print. 223-274.

Hayot, Eric. “Against Periodization; or, On Institutional Time.” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 739-756. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

London, April. Women and Property in the Eighteenth-century English Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2001. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

Richetti, John. “Formalism and Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 24.2 (2012): 157-160. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

PAB #8: Formalism and Eighteenth-Century Fiction

Richetti, John. “Formalism and Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 24.2 (2012): 157-160. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

KEY TERMS: formal theory; formalism; historically oriented formalism; New Critics; literary studies; consumer culture; Samuel Richardson; Henry Fielding; eighteenth-century novel; periodization

This text is the introduction to a special issue of Eighteenth Century Fiction. In the piece, which explains Richetti’s thought process as he requested submissions for the journal, Richetti steps back to consider the place of formal theory in eighteenth-century literary studies.

Richetti argues that eighteenth-century literary studies has become “an extreme version of cultural studies,” which has deviated from or even contradicted what he sees “as the main [task] of literary study,” which is analyzing literature using formalism (157). Literary studies, says Richetti, should go beyond culture; literary scholars should see literature as “distinct from other linguistic and cultural practices within its particular historical context” (157). But Richetti recognizes that eighteenth-century literature was steeped in the greater culture even during the period; novels, after all, “were part of an emerging consumer culture, a response to audience needs as they were perceived” (158). For example, “Samuel Richardson . . . set out to moralize popular amatory fiction, [and] . . . Henry Fielding . . . began his career as a novelist by parodying Richardson’s novels” (158). Because of these historical complexities, Richetti himself isn’t sure how to separate the culture from the literature—he just argues that it needs to be done.

Richardson's Pamela was groundbreaking, in part because of its clear attempt to moralize popular fiction.
Richardson’s Pamela was groundbreaking, in part because of its clear attempt to moralize popular fiction.
Fielding's Shamela was a direct response to Pamela; eliminating the historical significance would reduce this work to a mere baudy tale.
Fielding’s Shamela was a direct response to Pamela; eliminating the historical significance would reduce this work to a mere bawdy tale.

Richetti poses the following questions to contributors:

How can we talk in more or less formal terms about works of prose fiction that are opportunistic and improvisatory and do not seem to adhere to any particular formal pattern? What sort of critical terms might be employed to explain how such fiction possesses a sustaining structure that provides coherence and meaning? Or should we go even further and say that eighteenth-century English fictional narrative in its various manifestations defines itself by a subversion in form, by the explicit rejection of formal affiliations and generic traditions and decorum? (158-159)

Richetti explains that, as he read submitted articles, he discovered that the “extreme cultural studies [he] worried about has retreated” and that “a new, historically oriented formalism is emerging” (159). This is not the strict formalism of the New Critics; with the eighteenth-century novel, too much is lost by looking only at the words on the page. Even Richetti recognizes the mandatory intersection of literature and history in the eighteenth-century novel, but Richetti argues for a formal theory that uses history merely as a tool to dig deeper into the literary form (rather than vice versa). But more important than history, Richetti notices, is biography: Based on contributions to this special issue, Richetti notes “that each novelist can be said to develop his or her own sense of form,” so “[w]e must speak not of one principle of formal narrative organization but of many” (160).

As I’ve been researching periodization this semester, it’s interesting to me to see the controversial views of the importance of history to literary studies. Periodization requires some historical context to ground literature, but as I learned when writing Paper #2, the prominence of periodization in the academy is slipping; as I researched this week, I learned that deeply historical views of literature, too, are slipping. This makes sense; if literary scholars are attempting to step away from teaching literature from a historical perspective, why would they continue to view literature using a historical lens? These trends in literary studies are interconnected, and I’m interested in learning more about how to use this information to improve my own research practices.

PAB #7: Women and Property in the Eighteenth-century English Novel

London, April. Women and Property in the Eighteenth-century English Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2001. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

KEY TERMS: Printing Act; cheap print literacy; feminist theory; property; things; classical republicanism; Lockean liberalism; Samuel Richardson; letters; colonialism; period specialization

The eighteenth century was a pivotal time for women, especially in relation to the novel. As I discussed in Paper #3, the lapse of the 1662 Printing Act led to a drastic increase of printed materials, ultimately leading to a middle class that was educated due to cheap print literacy. This meant that women, too, had easier access to printed materials, but they also had easier access to publishing. We see this in the increase in published female authors, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, but we also see an increase in the novel form, which often focused on female characters and was thoroughly enjoyed by English women. Due to women’s relationship to eighteenth-century literature, feminist theory is essential to understanding the literature and culture of the period.

Because of the importance of feminist theory, I’ve chosen to read London’s book, which looks at eighteenth-century notions of property using a feminist lens.

During the eighteenth century, property was understood in terms of “identity, virtue, economics, and the real property of ‘Lands and Houses’,” yet, argues London, “[w]hat is missing . . . is the presence of women” (2). Because of this, London dedicates this book to analyzing how eighteenth-century ideas of property become “complicated when women are included in the account,” especially in novels, which were seen by contemporaries as particularly “feminocentric” (2). Because of the feminist nature of this analysis, London’s ideas involve “more inclusive interpretive frameworks for literary criticism,” particularly philosophy, politics, and law (2).

In order to explain her feminist approach to eighteenth-century property, London provides background on political ideas of the period. The prevailing contrasting political theories of the time were classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism, but London argues that both theories were present in many eighteenth-century novels: “Lockean liberalism [is responsible] for the charting of the processes of self-making which stand at the center of many novelistic plots, [and] civic humanism [is responsible] for the resolution or displacement of disruptiveness through the novel’s closing emphasis on the value of real property” (4). In other words, women have “dual relations to property”: women exercise “intrinsic meaning . . . as possessors of their own persons” and property, but ultimately women are legally “the property of father and husband” (6), and this duality is expressed via the plot of the typical eighteenth-century novel. The first part of a novel, then, is Lockean, while the ending tends to be republican.

Locke's ideas are studied extensively in philosophy and history courses, but they also provide a useful framework for understanding eighteenth-century literature. Image credit: History.com
Locke’s ideas are studied extensively in philosophy and history courses, but they also provide a useful framework for understanding eighteenth-century literature.
Image credit: History.com

To me, the most interesting part of London’s book is where she applies this concept of duality to Samuel Richardson’s novels. Richardson’s heroines establish agency via their possessions—particularly their letters (but also Clarissa’s will). But at the end of their respective novels, the women become male property (Pamela and Harriet by marrying their suitors; Clarissa in death by “marrying” God), but moreover, their property is overtaken by men—both the men of the novels (Clarissa’s will is (mis)interpreted by her male cousin; Pamela’s letters are intercepted and later controlled by Mr. B) and, in Clarissa’s case, by the male “editor” of her letters, Mr. Belford. In short, these women have self-agency because of their relationships with their possessions, until they themselves become male property.

This feminist look at eighteenth-century notions of property is especially interesting in light of my earlier look at objects and artifacts. Eighteenth-century colonialism and trade make the prevalence of “things” an object of study in itself, but an important note London makes is that women, too, were “things” of the period, and because of this, using feminist theory is essential when attempting to understand eighteenth-century culture. This is especially important if approaching literature in terms of a period specialization. In order to understand the period, a scholar must understand the political, legal, and philosophical ideas of the time, and the ephemera I discussed in Paper #3 are fantastic resources for learning more about these intersecting frameworks.

Paper # 3: Objects of Study for the New Eighteenth-Century Literary Scholar

KEY TERMS: literary studies; survey courses; eighteenth century; period specializations; periodization; objects of study; ephemera; journals; digital archives; history; Printing Act

Unlike some other fields within English studies, the field of literary studies has some very obviously accepted objects of study. Even the name “literary studies” suggests that we study literature: fiction, drama, poetry. These have been the accepted objects of study since the inception of English literary studies in the mid-eighteenth century (Miller 1-2), and they are still the focus of most literature courses. (Survey courses rarely look at texts beyond these, and more specialized courses tend to focus on the novel form, or perhaps a particular poet.) But in the twenty-first century, as literary scholars find themselves expanding beyond a narrow specialization (Buchholz), they find themselves expanding their objects of study beyond the novel, drama, and poem forms.

Aside from traditional literary forms, today’s scholars of the eighteenth century study the category of ephemera, which proliferated then as it does now. What constitutes ephemera? In “Of Grubs and Other Insects: Constructing the Categories of ‘Ephemera’ and ‘Literature’ in Eighteenth-Century British Writing,” Paula McDowell defines ephemera as a category of writing that includes such materials as pamphlets, tracts, and newspapers. In order to get an idea of how ephemera is approached by today’s eighteenth-century literary scholars, I looked to recent issues of journals like Eighteenth-Century Fiction, The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Studies in English Literature, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. Here are some of the articles I found that may help provide an idea of the variety of objects to which today’s scholars of the period turn:

Objects of study from this list include maps, it-narratives, trade cards, words, china, newspapers, tickets, travelogues, and suicide notes. Some of these objects are clearly literary (like it-narratives and travelogues), while others lean more toward history than literature. Despite supplementing with a theoretical specialty (Buchholz), most of today’s literary scholars have period specializations, so despite their desire to distinguish themselves from historians (Underwood 13), these objects that provide the historical context of their more formal objects of study (such as novels) function as useful objects of study themselves. The published suicide notes of the 1770s, for example, may seem at first to provide only historical context for the culture of sensibility, but they themselves function as literary objects. According to Parisot, they constitute “a stylistically-diverse body of samples that perform a variety of functions in accordance with a range of motivations,” and “contrary to expectations, the body of writing contained in the eighteenth-century press perhaps speaks more to the suicide note as a precarious and deeply conflicted performance, one that attempts to reconcile the surrender and reclamation of personal agency, the rejection and reformation of social ties, and ultimately, the competing desires for self-destruction and self-construction” (278). Parisot’s analysis of the form is adept, which makes it hard to believe that suicide notes didn’t become an object of study until Sleepless Souls, a study of eighteenth-century suicide notes, was published by MacDonald and Murphy in 1990 (Parisot 279).

We can see, then, that scholars do, in fact, study ephemeral materials, but that hasn’t always been the case. Traditionally, literary scholars have considered these materials obsolete, “textual materials that may have been valued by someone at some time for some reason, but are without ‘enduring literary value’ now” (McDowell 48). After all, ephemera “is the plural of the Greek ephemeron, meaning something that lasts only for a day” (McDowell 53). Yet times are changing. How can scholars of eighteenth-century literature ignore the most prolific texts of the period? After all, due to the lapsed Printing Act of 1662, printing became significantly easier at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and most eighteenth-century publications were “religious, political, didactic, topical works, and . . . pamphlets”—not more “literary” works like fiction and poetry.

Perhaps, McDowell suggests, the study of ephemeral materials is becoming more common because of digital archives. Ephemera has been defined as materials that last for only a day, but is that true of anything in today’s digitized world? Texts, especially the short ephemeral ones, are easier than ever to archive and study, and scholars are taking advantage of this technological breakthrough. The brevity that once made ephemera so easy to ignore is now the quality that makes ephemera so prominent; after all, it’s easier to archive a broadside than the entirety of Clarissa (McDowell 65).

As my earlier papers have suggested, the field of literary studies has questioned its own goals and methods since its inception. Its accepted objects of study, too, have been (and still are) under scrutiny. McDowell writes:

For literary scholars confronted with a vastly expanded archive, new—and sometimes not so new—questions press upon us with heightened urgency. What should be the place of “nonliterary” writings in our scholarship and our classrooms? What should be the place of so-called ephemeral forms, such as pamphlets, broadsides, and tracts? For literary scholars wishing to take “ephemera” seriously (both as a set of objects and as a classification), one possible response to the still-familiar question “But is it any good?” may be: “Good for what?” (65)

This is what scholars must ask themselves. Just as we must question period distinctions (do we adhere to periodization simply because it’s how it’s always been done?), we must question what constitutes a worthy object of study (do we dismiss ephemera simply because it’s what we’ve always done?). In the twenty-first century, literary scholars are redefining the work they do and how they see themselves as scholars, so it makes sense that they question the narrow focus of traditional objects of study. Fiction, drama, and poetry are not the only worthy objects of study for an eighteenth-century scholar; ephemeral materials are fascinating not only in how they help scholars better understand their period specializations, but also in their own right. What makes a poem more literary than a published suicide note? As our oft-updated anthologies suggest, scholars continually question the canonical authors of the period. Why, then, shouldn’t we question the canonical genres and forms, as well?

Works Cited

Buchholz, Laura. Personal interview. 20 Sept. 2015.

McDowell, Paula. “Of Grubs and Other Insects: Constructing the Categories of Ephemera and Literature in Eighteenth Century British Writing.” Book History 15 (2012): 48-70. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

Miller, Thomas. The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Provinces. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1997. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

Parisot, Eric. “Suicide Notes and Popular Sensibility in the Eighteenth-Century British Press.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 47.3 (2014): 277-291. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

PAB # 6: Suicide Notes and Popular Sensibility in the Eighteenth-Century British Press

Parisot, Eric. “Suicide Notes and Popular Sensibility in the Eighteenth-Century British Press.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 47.3 (2014): 277-291. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

KEY TERMS: sentimental novels; sensibility; eighteenth century;  suicide notes; literature scholars; object of study; rhetorical power

Many sentimental novels of the eighteenth century (Clarissa; Sir Charles Grandison; Julie, or the New Eloise; Julia de Roubigne; Sorrows of Young Werther) allude to or present a suicide.“The novel, however,” writes Parisot, “was not the only domain for sentimental suicide” (277). Newspapers of the time sometimes published “sensational report[s] of suicide,” as well as actual suicide notes. Parisot explains that what is exceptional about “this archive of published suicide notes is the degree to which many of these authors invoke contemporary conceptions of sensibility, both to frame their suicidal experience and to elicit desired (and often public) responses. The result is a collection of writing that constitutes an alternative textual history of sensibility” (277).

The translation of this original publication of Goethe's masterpiece may have inspired many of the published suicide notes of the late eighteenth century.
The translation of this original publication of Goethe’s masterpiece may have inspired many of the published suicide notes of the late eighteenth century.

The nature of suicide notes—typically written hastily when emotion runs deep and to a specific audience—might seem to indicate that these notes might not be interesting to literature scholars. Yet Parisot argues that the suicide notes published in the eighteenth century constitute “a stylistically-diverse body of samples that perform a variety of functions in accordance with a range of motivations,” and “contrary to expectations, the body of writing contained in the eighteenth-century press perhaps speaks more to the suicide note as a precarious and deeply conflicted performance, one that attempts to reconcile the surrender and reclamation of personal agency, the rejection and reformation of social ties, and ultimately, the competing desires for self-destruction and self-construction” (278). One such suicide note was published in 1769 in London’s Independent Chronicle and written by Mungo Campbell to his wife; Campbell had been convicted of murder and chose suicide over an undignified public hanging:

You will find, my long and faithful companion, I have kept my word with you—Since I must die because I would not surrender my arms to a tyrannic Lord, I am resolved to avoid being a public spectacle—‘Ere you receive this I am no more. May every happiness attend you on earth, and may we meet in eternity, is the earnest wish of your’s [sic] even in death,

Mungo Campbell

Parisot explains that suicide notes became an object of study for eighteenth-century scholars beginning with the study Sleepless Souls conducted by MacDonald and Murphy in 1990. The study found that the publication of suicide notes happened most frequently in the 1770s, coinciding with the burgeoning literary sensibility. Yet audiences didn’t read these notes simply out of morbid fascination; instead, the published “suicide notes appear to function as popular ‘sentimental vignettes,’ isolated scenes of suffering offered as opportunities for the reader to test their own capacity to feel” (279), and interestingly, many of the “literary performances conceal the grim reality typical of the suicidal experience—namely, acute despair and the prospect of bodily violence” (284). While many of the suicide notes appear to be genuine, there were not always corresponding suicides; some suicide notes were written merely for the sake of entertainment (though they weren’t declared as fiction). But Parisot, along with McDonald and Murphy, believes that the veracity of these notes is of little consequence. The notes still stand as valuable objects of study for literature scholars, in part because, “[w]ithout the disguising aids of fiction, published suicide notes remain uncomfortably public notices where the failures of society are writ large” (285).

The proliferation of published suicide notes emphasizes the notion that ephemera are worthy objects of study to eighteenth-century scholars. Not only to they provide interesting and useful historical context, but they demonstrate the impact of sentimental fiction on the public. Citizens understood the rhetorical power of their final words—even if these citizens were unknown to the community—and used these words to construct a lasting identity for themselves. Not only do these suicide notes help scholars better understand the impact of sentimentality on the reading public, but the notes function as objects of study—perhaps even literature—for their own sake.

PAB # 5: Of Grubs and Other Insects

McDowell, Paula. “Of Grubs and Other Insects: Constructing the Categories of Ephemera and Literature in Eighteenth Century British Writing.” Book History 15 (2012): 48-70. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

KEY TERMS: eighteenth century studies; literature; literary scholars; Jonathan Swift; Alexander Pope; Samuel Johnson; object of study; ephemera; Printing Act; digital archives

McDowell’s article explores the question of what counts as literature in eighteenth century studies, citing eighteenth-century authors’ perspectives on literature as well as the way literature is defined today. What counts as a worthy object of study? Novels? Dramas? Poetry? Of course. But what about other writings that proliferated during the eighteenth century?

McDowell approaches the question by explaining the term “ephemera,” a category of writing that includes such materials as pamphlets, tracts, and newspapers, a category that has been seen as problematic by librarians attempting to archive the materials and obsolete by literary scholars, who tend to see ephemera “as textual materials that may have been valued by someone at some time for some reason, but are without ‘enduring literary value’ now” (48). The term “is the plural of the Greek ephemeron, meaning something that lasts only for a day” (53), and the OED traces the term “ephemera” to 1938, meaning “‘printed matter of no lasting value except to collectors, as tickets, posters, greetings cards, etc.’” (qtd. in McDowell 51). Librarians and archivists have worked since the 1960s to define “ephemera” for themselves, and in his 1962 book Printed Ephemera, the typographer John Lewis echoes the OED, explaining “ephemera” as “’a term used for anything printed for a specific short term purpose; such things as a bus ticket, a circus poster, a Christmas card. . . . There is hardly any limit’” (qtd. in McDowell 51).

While many scholars today don’t consider ephemera to be literary, the truth is that most eighteenth-century publications were “religious, political, didactic, topical works, and . . . pamphlets.” Why? McDowell explains that, in 1695, “the lapse of the Printing or Licensing Act of 1662 ended . . . government restrictions on the number of printers throughout England, contributing to . . . a vast increase in the number of printed texts.” The Printing Act limited the number of printers in England to just twenty-four, but by 1705, there were at least sixty-five printing houses in only the capital city, and most of the works printed are not anthologized today: Most of the works printed were ephemera (49).

This is a typical broadside, printed in London in 1706. A broadside was an entire work printed on one side of one large sheet of paper, a perfect representative of eighteenth-century ephemera. Source: Museum of London.
This is a typical broadside, printed in London in 1706. A broadside was an entire work printed on one side of one large sheet of paper, a perfect representative of eighteenth-century ephemera. Source: Museum of London.

The canonical Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope each supported the Printing Act and believed that its lapse “had encouraged seditious, blasphemous, and otherwise ‘factious’ authors and given rise to the phenomenon popularly satirized as ‘Grub Street’” (50). To Swift and Pope (and to many literary scholars today), literature included “creative or imaginative works,” not the ephemera proliferating in the press. Yet another famous eighteenth-century author held quite a different view of literature: Samuel Johnson “associated freedom of the press with English liberty, and he openly set out to make a living as a professional author,” and in 1744 he even wrote a piece called “Essay on the Origin and Importance of Small Tracts and Fugitive Pieces” (50). Johnson believed that it was the length, not the merit, of ephemeral materials that led to their dismissal by his contemporaries (63).

McDowell believes that the length that once weakened the literary claim of ephemera is exactly what can strengthen this claim now: “[T]oday, with digital archives, the relationship Johnson posits between the size and survival of texts is no longer necessarily the case. In fact, the opposite may now be the case, for it is easier to digitize a broadside than, say, Clarissa” (65). Ephemera has been defined as materials that last for only a day, but is that true of anything in today’s digitized world? Ultimately, McDowell writes:

For literary scholars confronted with a vastly expanded archive, new—and sometimes not so new—questions press upon us with heightened urgency. What should be the place of “nonliterary” writings in our scholarship and our classrooms? What should be the place of so-called ephemeral forms, such as pamphlets, broadsides, and tracts? For literary scholars wishing to take “ephemera” seriously (both as a set of objects and as a classification), one possible response to the still-familiar question “But is it any good?” may be: “Good for what?” (65)

McDowell herself believes that the category of ephemera “has done and continues to do powerful rhetorical, practical, ideological, and disciplinary work” (49). I’m inclined to agree. How can we as scholars dismiss ephemera as objects of study when these materials were the bulk of the eighteenth-century print marketplace? This reminds me of an article the class read by Slack, Miller, and Doak titled “The Technical Communicator as Author.” The article discusses today’s technical writers and the controversial idea that they should be considered authors– controversial because “certain discourses are granted the privilege of authorship while others are denied this privilege” (12). Reading McDowell’s article along with Slack et al.’s really drove the point home that this is an issue that has been long contested and is still a matter of debate, centuries later, across the subdisciplines of English studies.

During my MA graduate work, I encountered some ephemeral materials, and they always helped me develop a richer understanding of the period as a whole. But ephemeral materials needn’t be just supplementary. If McDowell’s article is any indication, ephemera as a category is becoming an object of study in its own right. If they don’t exist already, perhaps at some point we’ll see courses devoted to studying the pamphlets or newspapers of the eighteenth century, and while I’m sure that Swift’s and Pope’s eloquence and wit won’t be replicated in these writings, ephemera can provide something different—something unique—as objects of study.

Paper # 2: Is Literary Periodization Obsolete?

KEY TERMS: periodization; period survey course; period specialization; history; canon; period speciality; periodized studies; literary studies; literature; comparative literature; Victorian literature; fifteen-week course;  theory; narratology; theoretical lens

Why has periodization prevailed?

In order to understand contemporary perspectives on periodization, I learned about the formation of English literary studies and the periodization that soon followed. In the mid-eighteenth century, English became “an object of formal study in higher education” (Miller 2), and then blossomed in the following century due to growing nationalism during rapid colonization (Taylor 202). Periodization has been the organizing principle of literary study since around 1840, when Frederick Denison Maurice used Walter Scott’s novels as inspiration for the first period survey course (Underwood 1-6). From then even to today, professors and graduate students alike were expected to have a period specialization (Underwood 1).

Periodization prevailed because it helped distinguish literary studies from the “mere causal investigation” of history courses (Underwood 13), because it is “effective at familiarizing students with a broad range of genres, aesthetic movements, modes of reading, and historical periods” (Hole 1), and because it puts ideas and texts into neat bundles that fit perfectly with the standard fifteen-week course (Hayot 744).

What’s so problematic about periodization?

While a benefit of periodization is that it tidies the messiness of literature and history, the drawback is exactly that: It oversimplifies a complex relationship between literature and history (Hayot 744). Periodization limits courses to an unchanging canon, geography, and set of characteristics (Hayot 745).

What are alternative methods of framing literary studies?

Although periodization has prevailed for a century and a half, it has been challenged over the years. Underwood discusses “one of the most effective challenges to periodization”: the evolution of comparative literature from 1890 to 1930. Underwood elaborates:

[B]efore 1930, comparative literature differed from traditional literary study not just in its international scope but in its very purpose. Instead of characterizing individual works or movements, comparatists sought to produce a general anthropological theory of literary development. This could have implied a fundamentally different approach to literary education, and the seeds of a new approach are evidence in early-twentieth-century course catalogs, which began to reframe period surveys as studies of ‘development’ and ‘transition.’ But this challenge to periodization proved short-lived, and the reasons for its failure are illuminating. In the 1920s and 30s, resistance to the new disciplinary model was expressed vaguely as a suspicious that fact-mongering comparative literary historians were neglecting literature’s cultivating power. (12)

Because comparative literature deals with vast geography and time, it is still in many ways outside of the traditional periodizing framework, but it has not influenced the rest of literary studies.

Today, periodization is under widespread scrutiny. According to Underwood, “[O]utside the academy, it is no longer clear that students need to be taught to recognize periods or differentiate artistic movements from each other” (15). Alternatives to periodization might include in-depth study of genre, form, theory, or theme. Hayot’s suggestion is to “develop and seek to institutionalize a variety of competing concepts, including transperiodizing ones, for the study of literary history. . . . The goal is finally not to have one approach, but many” (742; 748). Movements, genres, and themes, too, could become institutionalized curricula, and again, Hayot stresses, this isn’t an attempt to replace periodization: “My argument . . . is not that everyone should teach such courses, but that students might learn things (as I did) if some of us taught such courses some of the time” (751).

How should a burgeoning literary scholar approach specialization?

To better understand this final question, I conducted an interview with Dr. Laura Buchholz, whose specialization marries narratology and Victorian literature.

Visit Dr. Buchholz's web page to learn more about a recent PhD's research projects.
Visit Dr. Buchholz’s web page to learn more about a recent PhD’s research projects.

Dr. Buchholz’s experience ties directly to the research by Miller, Taylor, Underwood, Hole, and Hayot. She explains that there’s more to periodization than simply saying it’s obsolete, “because there is the perception of what is happening in the field and then there is reality of what is happening—and in my experience they are not the same.” She elaborates:

On the whole, universities are devoting fewer and fewer tenure lines for specific period specialization lines. If you look on the MLA job list for example, you will see some ads for period specialist- Medieval, early modern, 18th century etc.  However look closely and you will see how many of these span what used to be multiple periods-  for example, 10 years ago a university might have a Romantics specialist, a Victorianist, and an early 20th century modernist-  today these positions are combined quite often into a “Long 19th century.” Similarly I recently saw one ad where the school wanted either a professor with a specialization in either 18th or 19th century lit who could teach courses in both centuries.

But there’s more: Dr. Buchholz believes that, when marketing oneself as a literature scholar, a period specialty is essential. For example, she says:

[W]hile the ads for a specialist in Victorian lit are sparse- they exist- there are very few schools that would have a line for a “professor of narratology” even though it is a very wide and growing scholarly field.  Instead– what I think is happening is Universities are looking for period specialists, with supplements-  so you find an Early Modern scholar who also does digital humanities, a Modernist who works in narratology, a Victorianist who also does gender studies etc. As a result, departments are getting an eclectic mix of specialties where individual scholars wear many hats, become more and more  interdisciplinary and, as a result I believe, produce some very interesting work that is far less rooted in a particular “period” than it might have been a decade ago.”

Basically, while periodization is still “deeply entrenched,” a scholar who focuses only on a period won’t stand out and may even be seen as irrelevant.

This trend of marrying aspects of one field to another is actually reassuring and interesting to me. Yes, gender studies obviously ties into Victorian literature, but it also allows a scholar to look outside of Victorian literature for intellectual inspiration. I think it could help prevent a scholar from becoming too comfortable and stale; while periodized canons rarely change, fields and theories of gender studies, rhetoric, narratology, etc. certainly do. Having multiple specializations and interests is more natural, as well; I doubt that many scholars were certain, upon acceptance into a graduate program, the exact period they wanted to study every day for the rest of their lives. And why should they? Supplementing periodized studies with a theoretical lens seems to be a valid solution to the waning favor of periodization. It seems that periodization is not obsolete, but periodization is no longer enough.

Works Cited

Buchholz, Laura. Personal interview. 20 Sept. 2015.

Hayot, Eric. “Against Periodization; or, On Institutional Time.” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 739-756. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Hole, Jeffrey. “Lines, Knots, and Cyphers: Conceptions of History in the American Literature Survey.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice 7.1/2 (2014): 1-26. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Miller, Thomas. The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Provinces. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1997. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

Taylor, Richard C. “Literature and Literary Criticism.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana: NCTE, 2006. Print. 199-222.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

PAB # 4: Lines, Knots, and Cyphers

Hole, Jeffrey. “Lines, Knots, and Cyphers: Conceptions of History in the American Literature Survey.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice 7.1/2 (2014): 1-26. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

KEY TERMS: literary studies; literature; periodization; period survey course; American literature; exceptionalism; colonization; exceptional destiny; historicity; historiography; William Cullen Bryant; Herman Melville

So far, my PAB entries have focused on the general history of literary studies (Miller’s The Formation of College English) and theories about periodization and its alternatives (Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered and Hayot’s Against Periodization). Hole’s article, however, goes beyond theory and into praxis. He begins by focusing on periodization within the American literature survey course rather than periodization as a whole. Although the period survey course is “effective at familiarizing students with a broad range of genres, aesthetic movements, modes of reading, and historical periods” (1), Hole argues that teaching American literature in a linear fashion teaches students that literature and history, and the relationship between them, are simple and progressive. Further, he indicates that teaching American literature specifically as a survey may reinforce exceptionalism, or the problematic belief that the U.S. is the world’s ideal nation (2), and that it may also focus only on the victors’ perspective when there are many other valid perspectives that, over time, have been quieted. In his own courses, Hole says, “I want students to know that literature is theoretical, or, at least, that literature poses theoretical questions about history, historiography, and historicity. And I want them to understand better how various concepts of history have had direct ties to and have influenced colonization, empire, and race in the U.S.” (6).

Unlike other scholars I’ve read, Hole then goes beyond theorizing and explains how he approaches the first two weeks of his American literature course. On the first day, he reads Bryant’s “The Prairies” (1834) with his students, asking them to pay special attention to how “the narrator characterize[s] the historical transformations” of the poem’s “spatial and temporal categories” (9). The hope, over the next few class sessions, is to help students “understand that the narrator’s vision coincides with an order of colonization and expansion westward by European Americans” (9). Hole then uses Melville’s Benito Cereno “for an alternative, theoretically complex way of thinking about history and narrative” (15), as the confusion readers experience parallels the confusion of Amasa Delano, “the American captain whose view of the world and conceptualization of history functions as a central object of study in Melville’s narrative” (15). It’s important, Hole writes, that students recognize that, in the midst of the action, knowledge and judgment of events is cloudy, and that, in order to understand these events in retrospect, we mistakenly oversimplify them—and we, like Delano, “disconnect the historical past from present realities” (24).

I found the following passage from Hole’s article especially enlightening:

What I like about teaching Benito Cereno early on in the survey course is that it challenges and then changes significantly the way students theorize history. They develop a critical-historical intelligence and grow more alert to the ordering of history, of patterns and historicity, appeals to exceptional destiny. When we continue over the next few weeks to read selections from William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather, students understand better the theoretical stakes of thinking about historiography and whose interests it serves, whose voices it silences. (26)

I’ve already read so many intriguing ideas and alternatives to the period survey course, but this is the first article that provides me with a way of working within the period survey course while teaching it out of chronological order in order to help students understand how history actually works. Yes, events happen chronologically, but our history is not entirely linear.

(My attempt at creating a helpful timeline for my American lit students a few years ago demonstrated that. In trying to make the history easier for students to understand, one of two things happened: 1.) Students saw the timeline and thought history was simple and progressive, or 2.) Students saw a jumbled mass of events pointing to one or more areas on a line and decided that the timeline was worthless. I’m still not sure if the failure was because I’m not particularly great with creating visual aids, or if I can blame the complexity of history for this one.)

I’ve been planning my next American lit course that I’ll teach in spring, and I think it’s time to stop thinking in terms of dates. Yes, dates matter, but in the past, I’ve let them utterly dominate my course organization. (“I can’t teach X first because it was finished two years before Y!” “Wait—this text was begun a decade before this one, but finished a year later. Which do I teach first?”) As a critical thinker and aspiring scholar, I’m disappointed that I’ve let such arbitrary parameters control my teaching. Hole’s article inspires me to think as hard about my course organization as I expect my students to think about the course content.