Thursday, August 31, 2006

Early editions in scholarship and pedagogy

Thus far I haven't really discussed my other work. Yes, I am happily a new instructor of British Lit at Queens College, but I'm also a research fellow in a private collection of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century materials housed in the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center. One of my duties in the collection is to connect the items there with scholars who could make use of them, either in their own work or in their classes. In doing so, I've found that many of those I've contacted think using early editions and resources sounds like a really great idea, but they're not exactly sure why one would take the time to do so.

In response to my invitations, scholars seem to express one or more of the following attitudes toward special collections:
1. Special collections are for book-fetishists. Let's not get bogged down in the ooh-ahh materiality of the book when we want to talk about the ideas in the text.

2. Special collections are only useful if you're putting together an edition. Textual presentation and variations are really only of interest to scholars of textual history.

3. Special collections are like zoos for books. We're glad someone is preserving all those old pamphlets, maps, and out-of-print books in case someone, maybe a grad student, decides to study them.

4. Special collections are giving way to online resources that preserve older books' images and texts. Who would go to a special collection when they can simply click around online and get the same experience?

5. Special collections librarians are probably totally swamped with appointments. Why bother them when I can get most of what I need from new editions and the scholarship of my predecessors?
These are attitudes that I think I held, to some extent, before I began working in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room. I went to lectures held in the Reading Room and admired all the lovely bindings, wondered what was in them, and then went home. I never took the time to ask what was there and how it could be of use to me. During the only experiences I'd had in special collections, I'd oohed and ahhed over the bookness of a particularly exciting first edition, but I had only occasionally used them for research. I didn't fully understand that one could read the things.

When I began working in the Reading Room, I spent a solid month or so getting giddy over pulling out a 1623 edition of Bacon or a beautiful little vellum-bound Sentimental Journey. I thrilled over the maps, the slips of early American money, and the letters in secretary hand, which were, at the time, unreadable to me in a magical way. When I opened the 1651 Leviathan for the first time, I think my heart stopped. That is to say, I had a big crush on the collection for a long time. Like a crush, it was both hyper-emotional and superficial, and it yielded little in the way of useful knowledge.

As time went by and I explored the collection further, I found that one could very easily find and read around on almost any topic of historical interest in the period. Because the collection is mostly non-fiction, it contains things you rarely find in new editions, like descriptions of prisons, recipes, theatrical reviews, travel journals, colonization accounts, legal documents, and descriptions of foreign lands for the curious people back home. All of these things appear in the fiction of the era and are important for our understanding of the period, yet English scholars mostly know about them from the fiction itself, or from the descriptions given us by other scholars. After spending time surrounded by piles of these books, I find they have become a cornerstone for the breadth of knowledge I'd like to gain about the era. They aren't merely fetishes anymore.

I wonder if the fetishism of old books isn't a product of the digital revolution. Just as, when the printing press made texts cheaper and more abundant, the idea of the manuscript text gained a certain magical, noble power, the book itself may be gaining a kind of distant, reverential regard as digital texts become the more common source of information and entertainment. As graduate students more easily find primary sources and scanned texts online, we find it less necessary to learn how to use special collections for research, and we therefore develop a silly kind of awe for old books that keeps us from using them.

I have been trying, in my small way, to bring friends in the field down to the Reading Room so they can see how easy it is to find materials of great interest and usefulness. It's true that digital collections are amazingly wonderful and useful, and I am a great advocate for digitizing everything to make it even more searchable and universally accessible, but until we do, I hope we still find these rare items, learn from them, and keep them alive in our work.

Of those of us here, in our different disciplines, I wonder what attitudes we have toward using special collections in research and pedagogy. Do you take your students to special collections? Do they find uses for the materials? Do you use special collections for your own research? If not, why not? If so, what do you get out of the experience?

Populations and Catastrophes?

Since this is Katrina week on the Gulf Coast, in which newspapers around the country ruminate over the depopulation of one of this region's most interesting cities, I've been thinking about natural catastrophes and the sometimes hectic, sometimes protracted flows of populations in and out of cities. Here in Houston, we hear about the conditions in New Orleans every day, and we still have about 100,000 people living here who may or may not return to New Orleans, whether it gets rebuilt or not.

When I think about our period, at least in terms of canonical literary writings, I can only come up with two events of this type that made their way into literary representation; the great Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the Great Plague of London (1665). The first appears most famously in Candide (1759), the second in Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722). (I'd love to hear other candidates for this list, but these were all I could come up with, offhand)

One of the most interesting things about this text is its focus upon the city, or really the city's population, as the chief protagonist for its narrative, such as it is. As my students always remark, it is a remarkably Foucauldean text, able to hold in view simultaneously a wealth of individual stories, including the narrator, along with the responses and decisions, both rational and irrational, of the authorities charged with protecting the city. But the most consequential Defoe made in his representation was his insistence that no individual story could stand in for the whole. H.F. is a cypher to us, and his responses really have no more authority than anyone else's in this text. The text is filled with interesting dialogues involving people we meet only once, and whose ultimate fate we never learn. Everyone, including H.F., is just part of the larger ebb and flow Defoe is recounting.

As a result of this emphasis upon the population, this is a text with plenty of pathos, but not much sentiment. Part of it comes from the inclusion of non-literary documents like the Bills of Mortality, but part of it from the refusal to remain at the level of individual tragedy, which lends the text its astringency, as well as its cumulative force. We are made to feel that we, like the epidemic, cannot linger over any particular scene:

It was observable then, that this Calamity of the People made them very humble; for now, for about nine Weeks together, there died near a thousand a-Day, for about nine Weeks together, one day with another, even by the account of the weekly Bills, which yet I have Reason to be assur'd never gave a full Account, by many thousands; the Confusion being such, and the Carts working in the Dark, when they carried the Dead, that in some Places no account at all was kept, but they work'd on; the Clerks and Sextons not attending for Weeks together, and not knowing what Number they carried (p. 95, in Wall's Penguin edn.).

When I tried to think of comparable accounts, I was stumped. I suspect that pamphlets or semons might contain similar materials, or maybe travel narratives or abolitionist writings. I suspect that the kinds of legal documents Sharon works with might have stuff like this. But I'd love to hear about other works that try to document the flows of populations, especially in response to natural disasters.

Any thoughts, or candidates for inclusion?

Best wishes,


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's nearly time for ASECS!

Actually, no. The ASECS (American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies) meeting will be March 22-25 in Atlanta, GA. What we should all be worrying about now is the September 15 deadline for proposals.

I'm hopeless at links, so here's my cut-and-paste to the conference website:

Hope to see you there. And please feel free to post any conference announcements that you feel would be of interest to other 18th century folk.

Best wishes,


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Another First Week?

For those of you who just started teaching again this week, along with those already well into the semester, tell us what your classes are and how you're doing. How is the eighteenth century faring?



Sunday, August 27, 2006

Novels and Gin: Some Versions of 18th Century Escapism

Jen's discussion of the novel and Sharon's fascinating online materials from the Old Bailey made me think about "escapism" as a cultural category (in the case of prisoners, a literal category). It opens up an interesting vista on the uses and abuses of pleasure in our period, and how pleasure might relate to moral or social norms.

First off, from John Richetti's fine resource, the Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth Century Novel, we find this interesting description of the novel's emergence from earlier forms of narrative, a process which he aligns with the European Enlightenment:

"[In contrast with the novel,] traditional narrative forms such as romance and allegory have much less strict sense of fact and fiction, and indeed they depend upon a view of the world in which notions of probability and single and stable meaning do not necessarily obtain. For such traditional forms of storytelling, readers agree implicitly that the everyday world of common fact is insufficient, and they take pleasure precisely in the distance between that world and separate narrative realms featuring a fullness of meaning and significance such as quotidian existence radically lacks . . . . The history of the novel in Britain . . . is precisely the story of the emergence of a quite distinct fictional narrative, which defines itself, sometimes aggressively and polemically, by a process of rejection, modification, and transformation of previous forms or practices of storytelling, that are seen as insufficiently attentive to a narrow view of what constitutes truth and reality." (2; my emphasis)

A little further on, Richetti describes Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment readers and writers as having a "hunger for actuality," which seems to be the particular mode of pleasure sought in the fictional forms that strove to distinguish the "actual and the ideal" (3). Richetti, however, is too much the hegelian (consciously or unconsciously) not to acknowledge the varied historical responses to this "narrow view of reality," in the form of "popular subtypes" "such as the amatory novella, the sentimental, and the Gothic novel," which he calls a "clear and perennial protest against that rationalistic preference for the actual and historical, with its exclusion from narrative of the improbable, the marvelous or the melodramatic."

So here we have the novel offering both the rigor of the actual and an escape from the prison cage of rationality, figured in Richetti, anyway, as the distinction between the "quite distinct fictional narrative" exhibiting novelistic realism, and the "popular subtypes" that protest against it.

On the other hand,

When I think about the deeper stakes of escapism and fantasy in the 18c, I have to add one of my favorite passages in Mandeville, his brilliant rhetorical defense of gin and gin-drinking from the Fable of the Bees, from Remark (G.):

Nothing is more destructive, either in regard to the Health or the Vigilance and Industry of the Poor than the infamous Liquor, the name of which, deriv’d from Junipera in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the Laconick Spirit of the Nation, from a Word of middling Length shrunk into a Monosyllable, Intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate and crazy of either Sex, and makes the starving Sot behold his Rags and Nakedness with stupid Indolence, or banter both in senseless Laughter, and more insipid Jests: It is a fiery Lake that sets the Brain in Flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares, and with his Reason all anxious Reflexion on Brats that cry for Food, hard Winters Frosts, and horrid empty Home.


This passage, for my money anway, is one of the foundational moments in the emerging self-consciousness of "commercial society," in which Mandeville discusses the absolute necessity of oblivion for the functioning of people and things, and what this does to our inherited moral norms and traditions (as argued, for example, by Hundert).

So do novels belong in the same category as gin?


Friday, August 25, 2006

Wikibility in the classroom?

Yesterday, I went to my teaching orientation at Queens College, where the acting Director of Composition (who also serves as a general English-requirement-course assignment czar) Jamie Bianco encouraged us to consider new ways of introducing web writing into the classroom. Of course, the usual suspects (Blackboard, email, blogs) were on her list, but she also suggested creation of a wiki.

A light shone over my head and a voice spake unto me: A wiki will solve all your problems!

You see, in my extremely crowded BritLit syllabus, there is not an inch of room for class presentations. They take up a lot of valuable classtime that could be spent in open discussion, which is always (okay, usually) productive. Besides, I don't like undergraduate presentations and never have, since the "presentation" is artificially formal, usually low in actual content, and not useful to the other students because they can't access the information when they need it. And yet presentations seem to be the only efficient way to get students to share their expertise.

One of my early assignments for this semester is what I'm calling a "historical context memo." Each student must do some light research into a particular aspect of social or political history in the 17th-18th centuries, using reliable sources, and provide a brief on that topic that organizes the information clearly and arrives at a few ways in which this information is relevant to the literary texts being discussed. I do a little lecturing on these things on my own, but I can't reasonably fit a satisfactory explication of the 17th century English succession into my fifteen-minute preambles. It's not fair to them, and they need to learn how to find and organize this information themselves.

The idea came from an assignment my CWRU Nigerian Lit professor Tom Bishop (better known as a Shakespearian) gave us. It would be impossible, he explained, to cover every aspect of Nigerian cultures, religions, languages, and political history in lectures, so he had each of us cover different topics for the whole class. It was a class of eight or ten people, so it wasn't too taxing to spend ten minutes each explaining the memos we'd prepared for the class. I worry that with 25 students in each of my two classes, if I had them provide copies to one another on paper without presentations, what's the likelihood anyone would read them?

The creation of a wiki, though, would render these memos in an attractive, interconnected, easily browsable format that would ensure that they don't get lost or forgotten in the bottoms of bookbags, or, if emailed, somewhere down there in the Inbox. We could incorporate pictures, hyperlinks to good sources, and suggestions for research, while raising the stakes of the quality somewhat by publishing it online. Editing could be ongoing and communal, even reaching out beyond the class itself after the end of the semester. With two classes of 25 students each, we could cover 50 different topics, all in one space!

Some of you are shaking your heads. Wiki? you ask. Many of you are familiar with (and angry about) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia edited by any person who wants to add or edit an article. The format has its flaws, of course, in that, without requiring editors and authors to be well-respected scholars in the field, it can introduce errors (or, more commonly, exaggerations) that many of us find at best distasteful and at worst reprehensible. The best Wikipedia articles (to me) are those that cover up-to-the-second internet happenings and television shows. (I don't watch TV, but I find Wiki articles about TV rather fascinating.) I'd argue the real problem with Wikipedia is not its corruptibility (which is part of its charm, I think), but the way students rely on it for "facts" simply for the speed and do not verify them later. But Wikipedia is not the only wiki in existence.

A wiki is a set of interlinking articles surrounding a particular subject, authored and edited by a group of people, rather than overseen by a single editor. This can provide a nearly unique prompt for writing because it forces a writer to think about the communal tone and voice of the group. Many wikis produce detailed information about nonexistent things, like this fan wiki for The Great Outdoor Fight, an event mentioned in a comic strip called Achewood, or this wiki for a nonexistent role-playing game called The Elemenstor Saga, mentioned in the gaming strip Penny Arcade. The point of this style of writing is to yield detailed, consistent content that informs and interprets without making arguments. In the case of my class's wiki, this information should be "real" and easily verifiable.

Another wonderful thing about assigning a wiki article is that it removes the artificiality of "due dates" and turns continual contribution into its own reward. Yes, I will probably have to enforce some kind of production timeline, but the important thing is that producing the content should be fun, mildly competitive, interesting to classmates, and useful, hopefully, to other literature students seeking some pre-digested background on an era of history that can be overwhelming to a new student.

What do you think, O more experienced ones? Will this wiki thing fail miserably, or will it go well? Has anyone here used wikis in the classroom before?

UPDATE: I've started creating the wiki for this class here, which has allowed me to set up an interactive syllabus and readings packet as well as a page of suggested topics for the historical context articles. I'm very excited, and hoping that this might make this extremely demanding class easier for my students to keep organized. Whether the article thing will be difficult for them or not is yet to be seen; I am regularly amazed at the vast gulf between my more tech-savvy and tech-clueless students. PBWiki provides an easy-to-learn editor, lots of fun tools, and extremely helpful tech support. So far, I recommend them highly.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Some introductions

Some readers will have encountered me at Early Modern Notes, among other projects, although I've been having a blog sabbatical this summer. My break from blogging was partly due to major changes in my life and work since the beginning of this month. I've moved a couple of hundred miles (note to US readers: over here in Britain, that's a long way) to take up a new post with some relevance to readers of this blog.

But let's rewind a bit. For those who don't know Early Modern Notes, I'm a social historian. (And I'm pretty useless on 18th-century literature, truth be told, unless it's about criminals.) My research interests are 17th- and 18th-century crime in England and Wales, and I've spent a lot more time digging around in dusty legal archives than is healthy. You can find out more about all that here.

What makes us choose one path to follow in research rather than some other? I don't really know. Mine started way back when I was a first-year undergraduate, and I read this book, and then this one. I blame almost everything on Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, although EP Thompson had quite a bit to do with my interest in the 18th century.

I've now spent several years seeking out the nearest British equivalents of the rich legal records that Ginzburg and Davis used so brilliantly to write about Italian and French heretics, impostors and murderers. I do number-crunching (at a fairly basic level) whenever it's necessary, but my real interests lie in qualitative analysis, and in the stories told by people long ago to reconstruct and explain their experiences of the world and of often disturbing and traumatic events.

At the same time that I was embarking on this research as a PhD student, I also started another momentous journey: using the web space provided by my university, I set up a very basic website listing some links to interesting early modern stuff I'd found on the internet. I never expected it to turn into this, that's for sure. And the experience doing that which I've built up over the last five or six years has undoubtedly contributed to where I am now.

Which brings us back to the present. I think that many of you will have encountered The Old Bailey Proceedings Online. My new job is as project manager for two new, related London history projects, based in Sheffield University's Humanities Research Institute.

The "easy" (hollow laughs) one is for the Victorianists: we're going to finish off the OBP job by digitising the final run of proceedings from 1834-1913 (under the title of Central Criminal Court proceedings) and integrating them into the existing site. This will create a major, fully searchable, digital primary source for London history, and particularly for the history of non-elite Londoners, running right through from the late 17th century into the early 20th century. You can get some sense of the possibilities from the OBP Blog Symposium of February 2006.

Compared to the 18th-century project, though, that really is the easy bit. Like many other digital primary sources, the OB/CCC proceedings are printed texts - relatively easy to read and transcribe, and to mark up for digitisation. What we're doing next is much more ambitious and much more complex. Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London 1690-1800 will be "a comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources on criminal justice and the provision of poor relief and medical care in eighteenth-century London".

We're including a wide range of primary sources. Most of them are archival manuscript materials, including legal records such as coroners' inquests; parish records (eg: pauper letters, vestry minute books); the records of Bridewell and Bethlem hospital; apprenticeship records; and more. Print sources, meanwhile, include Ordinary's Accounts. Like the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court databases, they'll end up online: thousands of documents fully searchable, freely available to all internet users without any subscription barriers. What's more, we hope to construct a search engine that will make it possible to simultaneously search a number of related online primary source resources alongside ours, including the OBP, and others at different sites such as British History Online.

Well, we hope. Every phase of the process is lengthy and complex. All those documents and texts must first of all be microfilmed, scanned, and 'rekeyed' (transcribed) before we can even begin to do anything with them: that part of it is outsourced, although we have to produce various documentation to guide the rekeyers. Then we have to mark the transcripts up in XML, another dull and painstaking task, which will be done by the HRI's programmers and by several part-time, home-based workers who are starting this autumn.

Once the markup is done, the CCC project will be quite straightforward to finish off, since it will be essentially a matter of adding it to the existing OBP database and giving it a few tweaks. But for our 18th-century plebeians, our job will barely have begun.

The techie people have to create a powerful search engine that anyone can use fairly easily and, of course, we have to create a web site to present it. Even that's just a beginning. Of course, we want to see many people with 18th-century interests, from genealogists to academics, using the Plebeian Lives database in their own ways. What we want to do with it is to analyse the data in order to "reconstruct how 'ordinary' Londoners interacted with various government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives". We'll be doing large scale quantitative analysis and record linkage (to find out, for example, patterns of relationships between claiming poor relief and ending up as a victim or perpetrator of crime). The technique of nominal record linkage has tended to be applied to small rural populations: the computer made record linkage practical in the first place, now the internet is making possible the extension of its methods to the teeming metropolis. On the other hand, where we can find enough information about individuals, we'll trace their individual experiences and uses of the institutions available to them. I eventually get the fun job of writing short biographies to put on the website.

Stories! Did I mention that I like telling stories?!

Theories of the Novel

I'm gearing up to teach The British Novel to 1800 this fall (we're on a quarter system and so don't start back until after Labor Day), and I've been re-reading various histories/theories of the novel: Bakhtin, Watt, McKeon, Spencer, and Armstrong. After reading the introduction to McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel and then skimming some reviews of the book, many of which predict the "replacement" of Watt's model by McKeon's--an accurate prediction, at least to some extent--I wondered whether McKeon's is still the dominant one. Is there a particular study of the novel that is especially convincing to you? Which model of the novel's development do you present when you teach the novel?

Haywood's Fantomina: The Ending?

Well, I was teaching Fantomina a few days ago in my grad novel class, and I realized that I was having trouble with (what I considered to be) one of the most interesting turns in that text, the ending.

We'd talked a little about the running comparison between F's deceits and Haywood's enterprise as a fiction-writer. For me, this becomes explicit in the crisis created by her pregnant fits in public, the naming of Beauplaisir as the father, and her mother asking her if she is finally telling the truth, or just offering her "a fictitious tale."

Then we get this ending, which describes the resolution as if all the parties were waking up from a dream, when F finally tells the truth about herself and her adventures to her mother and Beauplaisir (interestingly, we don't receive F's own account of her adventures]:

Both [B and the Mother] sat for some Time in a profound Revery; till at length [the Mother] broke it first in these Words: Pardon, Sir, (said she,) the Trouble I have given you: I must confess it was with a Design to oblige you to repair the supposed Injury you had done this unfortunate Girl, by marrying her, but now I know not what to say: — The Blame is wholly her's, and I have nothing to request further of you, than that you will not divulge the distracted Folly she has been guilty of. — He answered her in Terms perfectly polite; but made no Offer of that which, perhaps, she expected, though I could not, now inform'd of her Daughter's Proceedings, demand. He assured her, however, that if she would commit the new-born Lady to his Care, he would discharge it faithfully. But neither of them would consent to that; and he took his Leave, full of Cogitations, more confus'd than ever he had known in his whole Life. He continued to visit there, to enquire after her Health every Day; but the old Lady perceiving there was nothing likely to ensue from these Civilities, but, perhaps, a Renewing of the Crime, she entreated him to refrain; and as soon as her Daughter was in a Condition, sent her to a Monastery in France, the Abbess of which had been her particular Friend. And thus ended an Intreague, which, considering the Time it lasted, was as full of Variety as any, perhaps, that many Ages has produced.

[from Jack Lynch's etext]

This to me seems like a conscious unraveling of the retributive, didactic ending that readers apparently expect: even Austen's Marianne has to pay for the rest of her life for her bad judgment about Willoughby. By contrast, Fantomina goes off stage, B never sees the "new-born Lady" again, and the mother arranges a convenient exit for her daughter that to me seems quite mild, at least compared to the fates of other coquets who get reformed or suffer the consequences. No death, no reformation, not even an affirmation of marriage or "realism" at the expense of her fantasy.

So what seemed to me really provocative, felt pretty flat in the room. Perhaps all this is too obvious to need reiteration. Anyone else taught this lately?



Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ancestor to a thought

Dave and I have been holding up the front end of this semester's postings with our massive, well-toned biceps! Lest we weary too soon (or we weary of us), please join in, contributors!

Dave's post on historicism and the wonderful comment thread it gave rise to made me think further about those ideas and assumptions that are somehow in our blood, even if we never personally imbibed them. I remember having a conversation with a brilliant young student at Hunter College in which much of what she said about herself and her friends reminded me of Judith Halberstam. Since Halberstam's work had introduced completely new thoughts into my brain, I assumed my student had read her. She hadn't. New gender theories had been released into the environment. How exciting!

Dave seems to suggest that, in much the same way, eighteenth-century scholars make decisions about history that are Hegelian or post-Hegelian, whether we've read Hegel or not. Similarly, one could argue that, despite the possibility that no one involved in the production could name a postmodern theorist to answer the million-dollar question, Snakes on a Plane is a pretty definitively postmodern entertainment. (Or maybe this post by Geoffrey Chaucer about Serpentes on a Shippe! takes the cake, though I'm pretty sure "GC" knows his postmoderns.) At times it is difficult to tell whether the theory is describing the practice or the practice is somehow absorbing the theory.

In a later post, I will talk about my dissertation plan, which explores a very particular way in which Locke's epistemology seems to become absorbed into popular assumptions about print culture through a conscious and ironic manipulation by novelists. This is, obviously, a longer post for a different day, if, in fact, it could be spelled out in anything less than a dissertation. Let us examine absorption of theories, then, in a much more quantifiable setting.

Think back to your undergraduate or masters years and the theory, history, and criticism you read then, whether in classes or on your own. Whose were the names you were expected by peers to know? What ideas were you expected by professors to respond to? Think especially of those theorists that have no explicit place in your own current writing, but who impressed you, at some tender moment, with an indelible mark. Even if you now reject that mark (or have had the tattooist integrate it into a lovely butterfly), it remains a part of your intellectual corpus.

Below, somewhere in the comments, I hinted at some of mine. Here are three:

1. Jean Baudrillard's Simulations: I picked up Baudrillard while still a teen and thought he was magnificently convincing. Since then, I've grown extremely wary of the trickster-theorist style, the swaggering declaratives and ahistorical imagery. In fact, now I'm rather embarrassed that I liked it so much. However, the idea of the hyperreal simulacrum is rather fascinating against the backdrop of the massive growth of print culture in the 17-18th, and if it weren't for Baudrillard, I probably would not have taken such an interest in the history of representation. This leads us to

2. Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: I have never agreed with Ong's conclusions, but I liked reading this little book so much. I was impressed by the interdisciplinarity of his study, ranging through anthropology, classical languages, literary studies, media studies, psychology, and sociology. It was liberating to see so much work brought together so deftly and readably, and still yielding a clear thesis. After five (?) years, I haven't had occasion to cite Ong anywhere, but his departmentally liberated methods and his urgency stay with me. And, lest you think I had T-Rex arms as an undergraduate and had to stick to tiny books, my third is

3. Elizabeth Eisenstein's The printing press as an agent of change. She's been accused, to varying degrees of accuracy, of having had that old teleological curse on her, but when I read this book I fell in love. My copy of Printing Press is as crowded with excited exclamation-pointed notes as my copy of Tristram Shandy. When I hear people casually dismiss this work, I become a little enraged. No, we don't tend to think of the history of print culture in these terms anymore, and I do know that other works have attempted to force this one into full obsolescence. I haven't cited her in my work, and I know that to do so would be controversial, at best. But I'll always remember this as the book that made me care about print culture and understand the power of technology to do the opposite of what Ong says it does. It might alienate us, sure, but it also can also make us more equal.

(Should I subtitle all of my posts "Baby Photos"?)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again--Here in Houston

After all the strenuous mental exercise demanded by Berlin, Hegel, Popper, and of course (who could neglect him?) Michel Foucault, I'm opening up a new thread to honor the fact that I will be teaching my two courses, back to back, between 1 and 5:30 pm tomorrow. The first is my Swift and Literary Studies course, part of our gateway to the major, and the second is my grad seminar on 18c novelists through Austen.

Great courses, but a really crappy schedule. Apparently, I was not paying attention when these times were assigned. Serves me right.

So those of you who are returning to classrooms tomorrow, and who have anecdotes or simply raw emotions that you'd like to share, blog away. If I'm not feeling too fragile, I might have a story or two as well.

Best wishes,


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Isaiah Berlin on Historicism

I'm about to teach my Introduction to Literary Studies again, and I thought I'd post a little thumbnail definition of Hegel's Historicism, courtesy of Berlin's small but useful book on Marx, that I use to talk about the importance of Hegel and Marx for our now commonsense notions of history and historical difference.

We've had quite a few mentions of history, historicism, and theory, and I thought people might want to take up at least one writer's description of Hegelian historicism and its implications:

[Hegel] conceived of history, as it were, in two dimensions: the horizontal, in which the phenomena of different spheres of activity are seen to be broadly interconnected in some unitary pattern, which gives each period its own individual, 'organic' recognizably unique character; and the vertical dimension, in which the same cross-section of events is viewed as part of a temporal succession, as a necessary stage in a developing process, in some sense contained and generated by its predecessor in time, which is itself seen already to embody, although in a less developed state, those very tendencies and forces whose full emergence makes the later age that which it ultimately comes to be. Hence every age, if it is to be genuinely understood, must be considered in relation not to the past alone, for it contains within its womb seeds of the future, foreshadowing the contour of what is yet to come; and this relation, no historian, however scrupulous, however anxious to avoid straying beyond the bare evidence of the facts, can allow himself to ignore (35).

Do we still believe this? What do you think?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Baby Photos

Miriam suggested a while back that each of us might do a post, in these early days, introducing ourselves and our particular interests in the field. I will therefore get the ball rolling with my own little scholarly biography.

Long ago, I was a biochemist, of sorts. As a high school student at Shawnee Mission Northwest, a public high school in Shawnee, Kansas, I was extremely lucky to have a number of excellent teachers in various departments, but my favorite class was Advanced Biology. My teacher helped me get a job sterilizing beakers and mixing reagents for a biochemistry lab at KU Med Center, which I heartily enjoyed (and which paid somewhat better than slinging coffee). After a few months, the professor of the lab decided they would train me as a technician. I got my own projects, presented my results in lab meetings, and learned what it was to be a biochemist. With topnotch training, the guarantee of warm recommendation letters, and a lifetime of excellent contacts in the field, I went off to college at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Eventually, for reasons far too bizarre to recount in full, I realized that it was the problem-solving aspect of biochemistry that I loved more than the day-to-day work itself. I liked the community of the lab, the way we'd discuss possible solutions and suggest new methods, and I learned that I had been extraordinarily lucky to have that environment at KU Med. My other major was English, to which I added a Spanish major and a Political Science minor. Much of my coursework was in film, creative writing, and postcolonial studies, with a keen interest in political violence. Like most undergraduate English majors, I didn't take any eighteenth-century content. I was a "now" kind of girl, interested in "now" kinds of problems. It was a fine experience, so I stayed on to get my M.A.

My first M.A. course was an eighteenth-century novel class that fit into my schedule, had many of my friends in it, and was taught by Chris Flint, about whom I'd heard good things. I was not prepared for how deeply affecting the material would be. I remember reading Tom Jones with pure glee, and Clarissa eviscerated me. Tristram Shandy was a revelation. I had read many good books in good classes before, but these were so moving that I was embarrassed at my own emotional reactions. I began to be able, for the first time in my life, to feel my way through books in addition to thinking through them. The biochemist in me, who constantly shouts, "But why?" made me pursue narratology and the history of rhetoric in search of answers.

In the fall of 2003, I moved to New York City to join the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. It's been a period of extremely fast development for me as a scholar, having come in just barely beginning to understand what drew me to language and literature as a career, and to the eighteenth as a field. It's been great to study in a vigorously interdisciplinary setting among professors and students who eagerly discuss our own work and that of our contemporaries. I've particularly felt challenged to broaden my approach to the eighteenth by thinking outside the era, especially in the direction of the late Renaissance, and to deepen my understanding by thinking beyond national and language boundaries, into philosophy, religion, and history, and through several critical and theoretical lenses.

With my fellow GC students, I've had the chance to host several events and grad conferences that attempt to create new communities of scholars, putting academics into conversations we wouldn't find ourselves in otherwise, exchanging useful information across the usual boundaries. (This blog is, perhaps, an extension of this compulsion to create new kinds of communities.) I've also been honored to receive a research fellowship doing outreach and study in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room, a private collection of late-sixteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century materials housed in the Mina Rees Library. Since the collection represents a huge array of history, theater, music, culture, politics, law, literature, philosophy, science, travel, and geography, it has helped me to expand my scholarly horizons further than I'd ever imagined.

I also get much of my enthusiasm for the period from teaching. While teaching Composition and Intro to Lit at CWRU, NYC College of Technology, and Hunter College, I managed to sneak some C18 content into every course, and found my students expressing much of the (almost dismayingly) visceral response I once got (and still get) from the material. In the fall, as I mentioned below, I'll be teaching the second part of a Brit Lit survey required for English majors at Queens College. The nightmare problem I described, of having only a day for the eighteenth, was often my dilemma in writing-intensive courses, and I look forward to luxuriating in several weeks of C18 talk with my students.

It is probably a terrible cliché to talk about classrooms as laboratories in literary studies, but I am often reminded, especially while teaching, of the wonderful meetings we had in that biochem lab ten years ago. We start from points of confusion or unease, we try out possible solutions or useful descriptions, and eventually we hit upon a new direction for thought that may or may not be rejected later. Often, we find some kind of consensus of method, if only for a day or two, that produces a new understanding of the text. And, as my labmates used to say, you don't have to publish all your results. Some just make you a better researcher.

At some point, as we get more into our work, I will explain my dissertation work, but that's another post for another day. Since Miriam suggested pictures, and I promised baby photos, here's me at age four, already displaying the peculiarly stern hunched serenity of the future scholar. Ah, 1983!

Well, hopefully now I've swept away any fear of being the first to do embarrassing self-revelatory stuff. Maybe this provides some insight into how I came to do this, rather than something else, and whence some of my affinities arise. Who's next?

Suggested Books for Collected Reading?

Hello folks. Carrie mentioned initially that we might do a collective reading of an important piece of 18c criticism, along the lines of the readings they do at The Valve. (Click on their link to see how they manage those readings)

Does anyone have ideas for books that they'd like to read as part of the group?

Jen has already mentioned McKeon's latest. Other suggestions? Since I'm teaching Ruth Perry's book this semester, I think it might be interesting to do hers, as well. But I'm certainly open to suggestions.

It seems to me that we could also contact the critics to see if they wished to respond. But that again is up to the group.

So any ideas?

Best wishes,


Thursday, August 17, 2006

So what about Romanticism? Does it really exist?

Just kidding, of course.

This part of the earlier thread got a little lost, so I thought I'd pull it out and offer it again, mostly because I think it gives us another angle on the periodization questions we've been debating.

But I also think that there are loads of interesting writers (mostly poets and novelists, though I'd put memoir-writers in this category, too) who, if taught at all, were taught as pre-romantics or "anticipations" of better writers. It's a pretty good example of how published literary histories affected the appreciation of a whole range of works that are now being reread and discussed more fully.

I'd love to hear some teaching strategies for taking on, say, Cowper's poetry or Hays' novels in our courses. So how do we put some of the new literary histories into practice?


Monday, August 14, 2006

Whatcha Reading?

I've been wanting to float this question for some time, because I'm always interested in hearing about the books other people in the 18c are finding important, useful, annoying, etc. A sentence or two about why you found it important would also help make such a discussion helpful for others trying to gauge what to read next. It doesn't matter to me whether it's new or not, or for class prep or one's pet research project. But I always appreciate hearing such responses to the books out there.


Whatcha Reading Right Now?

[my own answer in the comments]

Saturday, August 12, 2006

How and why do we define the long eighteenth?

A reader emailed me a few days ago wondering how we define the boundaries of our field and whether those boundaries are influenced by our feelings about the periods that lie on the borders. (In particular, he noticed that at least Tedra, David and I have expressed a little hostility toward Romanticism as one of the reasons for our interest in the eighteenth.) Finally, he wonders how important we find the study of philosophy to our various disciplines. How explicitly do we find ourselves teaching philosophical ideas (or even texts) to students?

As I tried to write a response, I realized that my own answers to these questions are terribly idiosyncratic and that the same is probably true for each of us. I will open these good questions up for discussion.

Why the Early Modern

Thanks first to Carrie for the initiative...

I'll put a topic in play, partially by way of introduction and partially for the edification of those who might happen on this blog who wonder "What's so great about THAT period?"

In other words, what draws one to the Early Modern era?

My own response centers largely on the fact that the era is so much what the label suggests: a mixture of customs and attitudes that seem primitive at times (a lord tortured and beheaded for minor blasphemies) with much that feels absolutely contemporary, not only in establishing ideas of democracy, equality and expression which, whatever struggles they face, are now largely established and familiar, but daily concerns such as "traffic accidents" (coaches hitting people, colliding, etc.) , stock frenzies, lawsuits, and hot topics that today would be on television or in the tabloids but back then appeared in different popular publications. One goes from distant observation of out-moded customs and ornate rituals to an intimate sense of immediate familiarity.

Closely linked to this is the sense of the modern era - the era we are in now - lying like a baby in its cradle, with all its features apparent, yet still fragile and newly born. A student of the era gets to see up close the development on all fronts - political, technological, scientific, etc. - of so much we take for granted today. It is, in a way, like looking at baby pictures of our own time.

Finally, there is the almost infantile pleasure of tugging at Santa Claus' beard to see if it is real - that is, of looking closely at many received notions "known" even by those with no interest in the era and seeing how different the reality was: that French justice was far more nuanced (and even-handed) than suggested by the existence of the Bastille and lettres de cachet, that Marie-Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake" (or even, as the French has it, brioche), that the Revolutionaries killed far more commoners than aristocrats, etc. Not that most of our friends want to know - most people, even ourselves, love their myths - but there is a private satisfaction in the discoveries themselves.

Those are some of my ideas. I'm sure I could find more in my own motivations, but it would be interesting to hear other's take on the roots of our shared obsession.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Recent Comments

I have finally figured out how to get recent comments to appear in the sidebar, through a hack called LastHalo. It only displays the name of the commenter, but if you run your mouse over the name, it gives you the first few words and the name of the post. Enjoy!

Desert Island Classroom

This fall, for the first time, I have been assigned to teach one of those massive undergraduate Brit Lit surveys ranging from the late Renaissance to Modernism. From what I'm led to believe, most of those who teach this class are Victorianists who find it rather easy to tiptoe through the tulips of C17th and C18 poetry and prose, plucking a few nice things to complement a semester resplendent with Romantics, Vickies, and Mods. For me, choosing among texts for the earlier two-thirds of the semester was rather like Sophie's Choice, especially since not even English majors are likely to take C18 anything before graduation.

Of course, I can't assign Tom Jones and Clarissa and call it a day, though the thought had occurred to me. I ended up taking the opposite path of assigning many short poems, literary prefaces and essays with the purpose of showing the British Early Modern/Enlightenment era in all its confusing, self-contradictory glory. For poets I have Donne through Pope, and then prose selections from as many C18 writers as possible, including all of Gulliver and a full day and a half of pieces from Johnson.

The limitations of the semester-long survey are severe, but while writing my syllabus, I found myself having nightmares that I was forced to limit the eighteenth-century section even further. "You only have a week for the eighteenth!" a booming administrative voice declared. Then, when I'd dream-revised, the voice said, "Just kidding! You only have a day!" A day? I thought. What could anyone get across about the eighteenth century in a day?

So here's my version of the Desert Island question, limited not by space but by time. If you only had one day (a 90-minute class, say) to teach something about the eighteenth to a class of undergraduates, what text (or texts) would you use to exemplify it? You probably can't discuss a whole novel, so you can excerpt, if you like.

I'll post my dream-answer in the comments.

Upcoming courses?

At the risk of eliciting groans, I will observe that classes start for most of us, those who are teaching that is, in a few weeks. I would love to know what courses others are to teach and how they will organise them, so please feel welcome to link to your course websites. (And now that I think of it, a section in the sidebar that links to pertinent course pages might be a useful thing. Note to self.)

This term I have two courses, a second year course that surveys English literature until 1800, and a graduate course on women in the theatre in the Restoration and 18thc. As you will see if you visit, the pages are in varying stages of readiness:

Thalia's Daughters for English 6365: Women Onstage in the Long Eighteenth Century
systematic deviation for English 2101: Literature in English I

Each is a new course (though the 2101 is really just half of a longer course that we recently divided, which I had taught several times). Any comments are most welcome, on course content, formatting of the course sites, or anything else.


You realize, Carrie, that this is totally going to force me to actually think about my . . . research! . . . from time to time. Which is good, since I should really do more of that.

Speaking of, I, at least, hope to use this occasionally to just freewrite and get some feedback on whether I'm off my rocker, which recent articles and books are glaringly absent from my mental library, that sort of thing. Or even, "this is startlingly original and brilliant; you must publish it immediately." Which leads me to ask--does anyone mind if I set up a Creative Commons license and put the little "this stuff is copyrighted" button on the front page?

Oh, and, hi everyone. And yay Carrie. Don't forget to put this on your CV.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Thanks, once again, Carrie, for setting this up.

Welcome to the Long Eighteenth!

The Long Eighteenth has been created as a response to a desire expressed by several members of the listserv C18-L for a weblog community for the discussion of eighteenth-century scholarship and criticism across disciplinary and language boundaries. The Long Eighteenth offers contributor rights to anyone who has a desire to engage others in conversation about current issues in eighteenth-century studies.

In addition to creating a discussion space, The Long Eighteenth will provide links to websites hosting blogs or resources related to the study of the long eighteenth century, and will repost CFPs and conference information upon request. All resources and discussion at this site are understood to be available to the public.

If you would like to become a contributor, suggest a link, or respond with any comments or questions, please email me at carrieshanafelt at gmail dot com.