Saturday, September 30, 2006

Teaching 18th century Keywords

Miriam's post about "effeminate" reminded me of the moment in my Clarissa class where I had to explain her use of the term, "friends." My students, some of whom are reading an 18th century novel for the first time in this grad seminar, were a bit quizzical, until I could point to Doody's fine discussion of its relatively broad meaning in the period, so that it encompassed one's family and family-connections as well as one's intimate, unrelated companions. Of course, the irony in every character's use of the term grows stronger throughout the novel. Clarissa's family are NOT her friends, and cannot be friends in the strong sense that Anna Howe is (with all the additional meanings that fill out and personalize our sense of authentic friendship: loyalty, integrity, and the desire to defend her friend).

Teaching the "keywords" of a particular era seems an important part of what we do when we try to provide context for literary works and interpretation, because these mediate between the primary text (which students have read) and all the secondary texts and subsidiary texts (which we have read and reflected upon). It is as necessary in survey courses as it is in grad seminars.

So how do we do it? Any ideas about imparting to students the period flavor of a term like "virtue" or "romance"? Do you handle it in lectures or supplemental reading or criticism? What terms have you found necessary to explain to your students, at any level?



Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Dorothy Van Ghent on the Clarissa-myth

Today I'm working off of Allen's fine post on Clarissa in the classroom, and introducing into discussion one of my favorite pieces of 20th century Richardson criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent's Clarissa Harlowe chapter in The English Novel: Form and Function (1953). Here we find an interesting contrast with Watt's discussion, which came out 3 years later, and is probably better known.

What I find so intriguing about this piece, apart from its teachability, is the fact that Van Ghent insists on the centrality of rape for the symbolic structure of this novel, and yet articulates how oddly that "centrality" operates: more like an absence than a presence, more a process around something than a thing or an event in itself:

This slow and hovering [epistolary] form endows the physiological event--the rape--with profound attraction and significance by holding it up slantwise to view in a murk of shadows, turning it mysteriously, allowing it to emerge slightly, withdrawing it, allowing it to emerge again, and so on. It is as tantalizing and evasive as a trout (47).

I must say there is nothing in Watt comparable to this in insight, even if Watt does make similar points about the epistolary form. Part of the reason for Van Ghent's superiority, I'd argue, is that Watt seems unaware of how centrally this metaphor of rape inflects Richardson's treatment of "privacy," one of Watt's key terms. And Watt has nothing comparable to Van Ghent in her treatment of what she calls the "Clarissa-myth," her treatment of how the novel's "imagery and symbols" aggregate into an extraordinary double-structure of myth, through "reiteration and accumulation," into something immensely powerful. The Clarissa-myth, however, takes its power precisely from the contradictions it holds:

[Clarissa's] mythical features still appear to us--for it would be a mistake to think that the Clarissa-myth does not still have deep social and psychological roots--in her two chief aspects: they appear on the covers of Vogue magazine, in the woman who is a wraith of clothes, debile and expensive, irrelevant to sense-life or affectional life, to be seen only; and they appear on the covers of True Confessions and True Detective Stories, in the many-breasted woman with torn dishabille and rolling eyeballs, a dagger pointing at her, a Venus as abstract as the Vogue Venus in her appeal to the eye and the idea alone, but differing in that she is to be vicariously ripped and murdered. Clarissa is a powerful symbol because she is both (50).

Unlike Watt, Van Ghent seems to realize how the "realism" of Clarissa does not in any way contradict the novel's "mythic" or symbolic structure, largely because the details function as part of the process of reiteration and accumulation that alert us to the presence of myth: think about Clarissa's "silk brocades," for example, and how they stand for the Harlowes' persistent misunderstanding of Clarissa's desires.

And yet even as good a reader as Van Ghent insists that Clarissa's fear of rape can only represent a fear of sexuality, a "Puritan" hatred of sexuality that can only represent desire in the act of disavowal, can only depict sexual transgression if it is accompanied with the promise of punishment.

So how to teach the novel without simply reiterating its myth of punishment?


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Effeminate women

bradamante.jpg[Xposted to my blog]

Yesterday in my graduate seminar we discussed Margaret Cavendish's Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions. It was a lively discussion — they are an interested group — and at one point someone brought up the ways in which the two armies in Bell in Campo are described. "Masculine" is used to describe the army of men, while "feminine" and "effeminate" would seem to be used interchangeably to describe Lady Victoria's army of women. It is also used to insultingly refer to men who prefer to stay home rather than fight. This led to a sweeping pronouncement from me about the ways in which the definitions of words often narrow and focus over time; it would seem that at one time "effeminate" could have been used to mean more or less "feminine" without any shading — though it was also used in our contemporary sense — but now it is used pretty exclusively as a pejorative applied to gay men who are perceived as lacking in "masculine" traits. We discussed various female equivalents and unpacked the some of the meanings "Amazon" held in the period.

This is one reason, among many, that I like the 18thc: English, always in flux, is just at enough of a remove after three centuries, give or take, that it is deceptively familiar. But upon closer examination there are significant little moments of vertigo, moments which can be useful as an entrée into a discussion of, say, gender roles.

[Speaking of language, awhile back on C18-L Jim Chevalier linked to a useful glossary of 18thc terms. I downloaded the list myself but have mislaid the link and invite you to post it again, Jim, if you are reading this.]

ESTC online

[Xposted to my blog]

Just found out that the British Library is offering free online access to the English Short Title Catalogue. Most, most excellent. Heads up from Stephen Karian on C18-L.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Teaching Philosophies and the Job Search

Oy vey. I'm preparing to enter the job market and I'm facing the prospect of having to write a statement of teaching philosophy. I find these statements to be the hardest things of all of the application materials to write. I've written some informal statements before, for use within the writing program at DU only. These were very brief--about a paragraph--and focused on my teaching of writing. Now, however, I'm faced with the prospect of writing a statement that is much longer, much more complex, and much more important.

The problem is that my "philosophy" of teaching is pretty intuitive. I am having a really hard time describing why and how I do the things I do on a daily basis in the classroom. I've looked at a variety of online guides for writing the statement of teaching philosophy and I've looked at a few sample statements--most of which were not written by English professors. So I wondered if anyone has any suggestions or indeed any comments about how these statements are used/have been used by hiring departments. My fear is that, as one article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested, these statements can hurt more than they can help.

"Clarissa" and every fourth female reader

It is estimated that one in every four women will experience rape or attempted rape at some point during their four years in college. According to the latest numbers from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women overall will experience some variety of attempted or completed rape, and 80% of these are women under the age 30. Almost two-thirds of all rapes were committed by non-strangers, and 17% are committed by someone the victim knows intimately.

And the situation for young women attending college parties and dance raves has gotten much, much worse. The most alarming development since the 1990s is the easy availability of what the Drug Enforcement Agency calls “predatory drugs.” These include Rohypnol (commonly known as “roofies” or the “date rape drug”), GHB (“liquid ecstasy” or “grievous bodily harm”), and Ketamine (“special K” or “cat tranquilizers). The most common of these, Rohypnol, is a sedative ten times stronger than valium, and in the year 2000, four million doses were intercepted coming from Mexico alone. Since the effects can last up to eight hours, women at parties who have perhaps accepted drinks containing the tasteless and odorless drug can wake up in a basement or fraternity house with no recollection whatsoever of what has been done to her, by whom, and how many times.

If you typically have twelve women in the classroom when you teach Clarissa, the odds are that three of them has, or will have, an experience with rape or attempted rape. It’s also a safe estimate that at least one of those three will have had that experience connected with a predatory drug. That bears repeating: every time we teach Clarissa, we need to assume that at least one of the women in the room has experienced something similar to, or even worse than, what Clarissa experienced in her rape.

Do we have a responsibility, therefore, to adjust our approach to class discussions of this still-controversial novel? If so, we are forced to juxtapose two dangerously contradictory messages in our common pedagogy of the eighteenth-century novel. On the one hand there are the familiar feminist and Marxist readings that Clarissa’s death, while certainly objectionable, is nevertheless the victory of the spirit over the polluted body, the dominance of an independent will over the oppression of the patriarchy, and the rise of the empowered feminine bourgeoisie against the fall of the corrupt masculine aristocracy. Clarissa is admired, and rightly so, for seizing her right to self-determination in the way that she sees fit. On the other hand, these same feminist readers would surely endorse the counselors, crisis centers, and ministers that give these same students a radically different message about healthy reactions to rape: anorexia and thoughts of suicide are the wrong path; the victim is not to blame; the body has been violated, but not ruined; virginity is a state of mind, not a state of being; and sins need not be atoned for because the victim has done nothing which God needs to forgive.

How can, and should, the rape of Clarissa be taught to today’s students in light of Richardson’s aims to portray her as an ideal Christian martyr and the essence of virtuous femininity?

Sunday, September 24, 2006


I wanted to write a quick post here to update where The Long Eighteenth is, so far. If people would like, I'll make this a regular (maybe bi-weekly?) feature.

So far, we have sixteen contributors with access to the front page. Many of you have yet to introduce yourselves, so please remember that it's not too late. This was formed as an international and interdisciplinary site, so your perspectives on eighteenth-century scholarship and pedagogy will be greatly welcomed.

We also have an active and responsive commentariat. Allen Michie has proposed that we find a way to get larger space for comments, but Haloscan keeps a strict 10,000-character limit on comment length, unless we are willing to spring for Haloscan Premium. I imagined, in my paranoid brain, that it was expensive, but now I find it's a one-time fee of $12. I will be happy to pay this when my checks come in, but due to endless administrative errors, I have not been paid yet this semester and have $24 to my name. The widow's mite? I'd rather buy eggs, at the moment; then I'll pony up for Premium.

The other suggestion I have for our prolific commenters (who are truly thoughtful and amazing—I seem to be the only one-liner among us) is to ask yourself, "Could my reply to this post be posed as a post on the front page?" We needn't confine all our conversations to comment format, which can be rather limited, both in format and readership. If you have a substantive response to another post, it would generate more conversation (and traffic) to respond with a post, linking to the previous post's permalink page. (I have never written so many P's in one paragraph in my life.)

Speaking of traffic, here is a screenshot of the traffic we've had since August 15th:

If the text of this image is illegible on your computer, click on it to view it full-size.

The orange part of the graph reflects the returning visitors, the blue part represents new visitors, and the green part reflects the total number of clicks, which includes people reading through older entries and refreshing their browsers. You'll notice there is a natural ebb and flow of traffic, which roughly corresponds to the work week. (For some reason, half as many people read blogs on Fridays.) Spikes in traffic occur whenever another blog links to us or when people post to C18-L about this site.

Our first blog event is coming up, of course, on October 3-5, when we'll be discussing Michael McKeon's The Secret History of Domesticity, in conversation with the author. Thanks to David Mazella for setting up this exciting event! I urge everyone to contact your colleagues and students to let them know about this. I sent an email to my department and found that everyone from Renaissance to Romanticism was excited to hear about it.

Again, I urge, with regard to posting, that we not be shy about it. Many people seem concerned about accidentally posting at the same time as someone else. In my experience, this is not a problem at all. People tend to read through feed aggregators that list posts by title and subject, and even those who read by clicking on the page seem to have no problem finding and reading whatever is new.

You will also notice that there is a new, improved "Recent Comments" section in the sidebar. Haloscan has finally put out its own ad-free widget, and I love it. I hope you do, too.

Thank you, everyone, for your ongoing contribution to this project. Although I am young, I am continually impressed by how effective the internet has become at creating communities of people who want and need to speak to one another. Please spread the word, and feel free to start conversations here at will!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Where to?

I'm curious about the conferences people are planning to attend this year, either in terms of presentations or panels chaired. At least some of the ASECS decisions must have been made by now, and I've seen some CFPs for SCSECS and NEASECS. (Is it my imagination, or isn't there a lot more last-minute scrambling for ASECS presenters than previous years?)

I just received the SCSECS CFP, in fact, from Laura Stevens at U. Tulsa, and I read there that Eugenia Zuroski, at U. Arkansas, who posted here a while ago, is chairing a panel on "Importing and Exporting National Identity." Lots of other good stuff, including presentations from Carla Mulford and Susan Staves. For more info, it's best to contact Laura at before Oct. 15.

So where are you going? What are you presenting on?


Friday, September 22, 2006

Samuel Johnson Teaches Composition: The Preceptor

After our discussion of Carrie's ungrateful "remnant," I thought it would be helpful to recall one of the eighteenth century's most famous failed schoolmasters, Samuel Johnson. In his Preface to the Preceptor (1748), Johnson gives us a description of the eighteenth century schoolroom (all male, of course) that sounds mighty familiar to me:

Every man, who has been engaged in teaching, knows with how much
difficulty youthful minds are confined to close application, and how
readily they deviate to any thing, rather than attend to that which is
imposed as a task. That this disposition, when it becomes inconsistent
with the forms of education, is to be checked, will readily be granted;
but since, though it may be in some degree obviated, it cannot wholly be
suppressed, it is surely rational to turn it to advantage, by taking
care that the mind shall never want objects on which its faculties may
be usefully employed. It is not impossible, that this restless desire of
novelty, which gives so much trouble to the teacher, may be often the
struggle of the understanding starting from that to which it is not by
nature adapted, and travelling in search of something on which it may
fix with greater satisfaction.

It is fascinating how Johnson turns this discussion of the classroom toward one of his favorite themes, the danger of boredom. For Johnson the ex-schoolmaster, one of the chief causes of schoolboys' inattention must be the demand that they read as a group from an identical text, even while they demonstrate widely varied capacities:

For, without supposing each man
particularly marked out by his genius for particular performances, it
may be easily conceived, that when a numerous class of boys is confined
indiscriminately to the same forms of composition, the repetition of the
same words, or the explication of the same sentiments, the employment
must, either by nature or accident, be less suitable to some than
others; that the ideas to be contemplated may be too difficult for the
apprehension of one, and too obvious for that of another: they may be
such as some understandings cannot reach, though others look down upon
them, as below their regard. Every mind, in its progress through the
different stages of scholastick learning, must be often in one of these
conditions; must either flag with the labour, or grow wanton with the
facility of the work assigned; and in either state it naturally turns
aside from the track before it. Weariness looks out for relief, and
leisure for employment, and, surely, it is rational to indulge the
wanderings of both.

Johnson seems to regard this lack of coordination, and the kind of boredom it engenders, as completely predictable consequences of the classroom. His solution is simply to offer a treatise like The Preceptor to the public, with essays on many different subjects, and with the hope that students with different capacities and temperaments will find what they need.

Perhaps he was not such a bad teacher, after all.

Happy New Year.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s

I've just finished reading the first three chapters of a new book by John Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (OUP 2006). It's a book that is particularly interesting in light of my own work but also in light of the conversations here a few weeks back about Habermas and the coffeehouse, so I thought a brief summary of his argument with a quotation from his section critiquing Habermas might be in order. However, I admit openly that I have read only the first three chapters of the book (which is not terribly long, not McKeonesque at all--it's around 300 pages), and I will therefore not claim to give a complete account of his book or his argument, which is much more complex than I can indicate here.

Barrell's purpose is to investigate the ways in which the political conflict and consequent atmosphere of suspicion in Britain during the revolutionary decade pervaded all aspects of life and thus blurred the lines between what had been conceived of as "public" and "private." Increasingly, as the political furor in Britain grew over the decade, the private realm became politicized, private conversation became public, and even off-the-cuff remarks in spaces (such as the coffee house) that had been conceived of as "private" in some measure were potentially politically dangerous.

In the interest of space I'll skip over his first chapter and go directly to the second, which relates more directly to our earlier conversation about coffeehouses and Habermas. The chapter is titled "Coffee-House Politicians"; in it, Barrell suggests that the coffeehouse--or rather, two fascinating trials that develop out of "seditious utterances" made inside two of London's coffeehouses--is one example where the politicization of private speech during the 1790s is clear. In the first case, an attorney named John Frost was reported for using seditious language in Percy Coffee House. After a delay of several months, one of the witnesses reported Frost to the authorities and Frost was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to "six months imprisonment and an hour in the pillory" (79). The second case is similar, though it involves two men who were arrested for making seditious remarks in the New London Coffee House; one man was a penniless gentleman and the other an impoverished doctor. The gentleman, Charles Pigott, was released without being charged; the doctor, William Hodgson, was indicted, tried, and convicted. The defense made by Frost's attorney, Thomas Erskine, and Pigott (Pigott published a pamphlet on the eve of Hodgson's trial that offered a defense of himself and to a lesser extent Hodgson) was based on the same assumption: that a coffeehouse was understood by all "polite" people to be a place in which the conversation is "private." Whatever was overheard in the coffeehouse could not actually be "heard." Both Erskine and Pigott therefore protested that a "gentleman" should not be subject to eavesdropping much less prosecution on the basis of conversation that should ostensibly be "private," despite its having taken place in a "public" place. Erskine argued that "words spoken in a public coffee house were words spoken in a private space; that they were, so to speak, privileged; that they should not have been heard by those to whom they were not addressed; that, if inadvertently overheard, they should not have been reported" (83).

The point that Barrell is making in highlighting the defense offered by Erskine and Pigott is that it is class-based. Two men who claimed liberal, reformist sympathies in the event fell back upon essentially aristocratic defenses, motivated at least in part by a distaste for the circumstances of their arrests. Both express disgust at the lack of "politeness" of the men responsible for reporting them, Erskine by frequent emphasis upon the "spirit of a gentleman" and Pigott by highlighting the informers' (lower-class) professions. Barrell concludes, "It is an intriguing index, however, of the difficulty with which the discourse of rights became established, that [Charles James] Fox, Erskine, and others, especially Pigott, who seem to have regarded this [freedom of speech] as a civil right essential to the survival of civilized society, found it so hard to express, except in terms of class difference, the right of an elite not to be overheard by their social inferiors and dependants. The spirit of despotism was not the exclusive property of loyalists" (102). The fact that the defense of these two men was class-based tends to undermine Habermasian descriptions of the coffeehouse as an essentially egalitarian place wherein two men could meet as private men, leaving their public identities (as a hairdresser and a lord, for example) behind, and this is the basis for Barrell's critique of Habermas (which I will quote and then be quiet!):

"'Provided a man has a clean shirt and three-pence in his pocket, he may talk as loud in the coffee-house as the "squire of ten thousands pounds a-year"', wrote the celebrated late eighteenth-century antiquary Francis Grose. Well, perhaps; but this kind of patriotic egalitarian ideology seldom meant quite what it said, and anyone who has been brought up within the English class-system, even as it is 250 or 300 years after the heyday of the coffee house, is likely to have doubts about how far distinctions of rank could possibly have been suspended in public coffee rooms...I am doubtful, too, about the supposed demise of the coffee house in the second half of the century. There were, famously, thousands of coffee houses in London around 1700, but the vast majority of these must have been little local caffs, often in basement rooms, open only for a few hours a day, and patronized by tradesmen on their way to work, who no more expected to be drawn into a discussion of Shakespeare's neglect of the unities than to be offered a latte when they ordered a milky coffee. No more than a handful of early eighteenth-century coffee houses can have come close to Habermas's or Sennett's ideal" (81).


The Remnant of the Unimpressed

I hope that title sounds like a horror movie. It should. By now I'm up to the ninth sequel, The Remnant: Life is Very Long.

Now a month into my ninth term of classroom teaching, having taken two year-long fellowship breaks, I finally face two classes full of delightful, smart, engaged, funny English majors, all curious and bright-eyed at the prospect of three hundred years of British literary history. Well, not all of them are so bright-eyed.

In every class I've ever taught, at Case Western Reserve, NYC College of Technology, Hunter College, and now Queens, no matter what the subject or group of students, no matter how exciting and judiciously chosen the texts, no matter how caring, entertaining, strict, or pleading I get, there is always a Remnant of two or three students who seem to wish I was dead.

Go look it up! Somewhere in the annals of my ratings at each college, you'll find at least one comment reading "B-O-R-I-N-G. Like watching paint dry" or "she is so hyper u want 2 shoot her n the FACE." There are plenty of kind things too ("Carrie is DA BOMB"), and, despite the apologetic comments ("I know she is really hard and obsessed with the 18th century (lolz, C!) but you'll learn alot!!"), I get the sense that my classes leave behind a wake of happy students who've learned something valuable. But in every classroom, the more the tide turns toward engaged, edge-of-the-seat discussion, the deeper into the ether the Remnant drifts.

The problem is that I was usually an eager undergrad, even when I wasn't the most careful reader. I could never keep my hand from shooting up to contribute to conversation, and I know how much my eagerness alone led to me receiving kind help from professors. I never imagined how painful it would be to stand in the front of the room and look out at those few rolling eyes and weary grimaces, those of the people I used to ignore from my teacher's-pet perch.

Things I do to shrink the Remnant:

1. I make participation and attendance a not-insignificant portion of the grade.
2. I talk about the classroom as a laboratory and the need for everyone's voices.
3. I ask them to write for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every class in response to a question about the reading.
4. I often remind them that admitting to not doing the reading is preferable to lying about not doing the reading.
5. I make eye contact with the quietest students first every time I ask a question, looking for the tell-tale brow-furrow of thought.
6. I ask questions that range from the extraordinarily difficult to the Sunday-School easy.
7. I give research assignments in which each class member becomes the resident "expert" on a topic.

I'd say this makes my odds pretty good, altogether. I've had reluctant students who've said they appreciate that I draw them out without humiliating them. But the Remnant, now down to just one or two per class, remains unmoved. They respond thusly to the above strategies:

1. They declare they're just there to pass, not to excel.
2. They express contempt for their own abilities to contribute.
3. They write nothing down or copy a single way-off-base sentence from a neighbor, verbatim.
4. They continue to lie, waiting for me to challenge them, or they declare they don't have time to read, ever.
5. They stare back, incredibly still, in the hope I'll somehow not see them.
6. They roll their eyes at the easy questions. No meatballs for me, thanks!
7. They refuse to do the research until long past its usefulness to the class.

I plead. I cajole. I contact them by email. I ask their friends what's up. I put the class in a circle. I talk to them after class. This sometimes gets a few on board, but still the shrinking Remnant refuses even to bring the day's reading with them so they can concentrate fully on a space about two inches behind my forehead. What have I done? You'd think I'd killed their goldfish or forced them to read Clarissa. (Still waiting for your explanation of how you get them to do that, David!) I guess they're angry at me for not allowing them to go gently into that good night. I just won't let them fail. I refuse to believe that English literary history is so unlearnable that anyone--especially English majors--should have to take it twice.

Perhaps the problem is my amour propre, rather than their lack of it. I want to feel I'm a good enough teacher to reach them all. I am young and this is what young people do: we imagine we're heroes.

I wonder whether this still happens in elective classes. I'd hope not. British Literature II survey is a requirement for the major at Queens, so I know some of them would rather be reading Bukowski on the lawn with a cigarette, but I've been teaching some incredibly steamy stuff. The only pattern I've noticed is that the size of the Remnant is always smaller in classes with non-humanities majors in them. Who'd have thought?

What do you do with the Remnant? Do you let them do their thing, or do you intervene? How do you wash off all that eye-rolling at the end of the day? Have you eradicated them completely? If so, give me the secret formula!

Teaching Students to Use Secondary Criticism?

This is really a follow-up to the earlier thread about the library, where we received some interesting posts about how you were teaching your classes about basic practices of library research.

In that earlier thread, I was especially struck by Allen's point about the need to teach students about how to incorporate other critical points of view into their writing, without allowing those other writings to dominate or determine their own positions. This principle seems to be the rationale behind Allen's six source requirement for a 5-6 pp. paper.

As always, I'm curious about how others deal with this in their lower- and upper-division courses, whether they choose for their classes the secondary criticism they use for research papers, and how they teach students the balancing act that we sometimes struggle with in our own writing.

If you have suggestions for especially useful works of criticism that function well in your courses and lectures, please share those with us.



Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Essays and Encyclopedias: Critical Genres

Now that we've discussed the varying scale and scope of some 18th century genres, I want to turn this issue of scale around to consider it in relation to the critical genres that we read and write in.

I'm thinking about the full range of scholarly or critical genres that we have become familiar with: everything from the McKeonesque (soon to become a scholarly euphemism, like "Rubenesque") monograph or the multivolume, multieditor critical edition like the California Dryden or the Yale Johnson; the heavily armored scholarly article; the sometimes lopsided variety of the essay collection; to the more slender and elegant forms of belletristic essays or what trade publishers call "nonfiction." I'd also throw in the more ephemeral but no less valuable emanations of the classroom or the publishing world, which constitute their own versions of "publication," in the sense of "making public": the book review, the seminar or conference presentation, the encyclopedia entry, and even (god forbid!) the bl-g.

To give a familiar example, it's always seemed significant to me that Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel, for all its problems, was always being contested and revised by much larger and more complex books, which never quite managed to displace it. So Watt's success came as much from his selection of the evidence as from his scholarly range.

So which of these forms do you find most useful to read or write in, and why? How does their length affect your use? What are the peculiar virtues of these genres?


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Essays and Encyclopedias

This evening I was commiserating over emails with my friend Laura Rosenthal, who has kindly agreed to be one of the respondents for the McKeon collective reading three weeks from now (October 3-5).

Laura and I are both making our way through McKeon's book, and I mentioned that I was also reading Clarissa with my class this month (not that I was looking for sympathy or anything). Laura, I discovered, was currently reading Sir Charles Grandison.

And my first thought was that people working in our field routinely contend with big books of criticism and even bigger books of fiction. The most remarkable part of this is how much we take this aspect of 18c studies for granted, even when our students don't.

Margaret Doody has a nice essay in the Cambridge Guide to the 18c novel, where she relates Richardson and Clarissa especially to what she calls the "encyclopedic" imperative of Enlightenment thought, an imperative unthinkable without the burgeoning technological and economic advances of print and print culture happening in Richardson's lifetime. This encyclopedic urge seems to lurk behind the most remarkable achievements of the European Enlightenment, not just Diderot and d'Alembert, but Gibbon and Bayle as well. And focusing on the collective intellectual exchanges of Richardson and his circle of friends is a nice way to describe the surprisingly open, temporally extended process of collective writing that helped create such a capacious text as Clarissa, even while Richardson busied himself with closing off some of those openings.

But as I thought further about the characteristic forms and genres of the Enlightenment, I also remembered many of these writers' elaboration of forms and genres at the other extreme: the periodical essay, the dictionary entry, the individual letter, or Fielding's and Sterne's chapter divisions. All of these indicate a mastery of the short form as it aggregates into something larger, or perhaps even when it doesn't. Addison's, Hume's, and Johnson's essays, for example, are wonderful examples of concentrated yet accesible thought, lucid largely because of their brevity and suggestiveness.

I know from my own experience that the shortest forms teach the best, because they fit snugly within our 14 week semesters. But is it possible to give students a deeper sense of premodern reading practices, which must have given at least some people the leisure to read and reread books on the scale of Grandison and Clarissa, not to mention the Decline and Fall? And what are your favorite examples (teachable or not) of the encyclopedic or essayistic writings of the long eighteenth?


Friday, September 15, 2006

Open ASECS panel, open tenure-track position

I just ran into David Richter in the hallway here at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he claims there are still open spots on the "Menippean Satire" panel. Please contact him at the email address below with proposals.

“Menippean Satire: New Approaches” David H. Richter; E-mail: drichter at

Since arriving within the literary lexicon through the theoretical work of Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bakhtin, Menippean Satire has proven to be a term of flexible application. What it means depends on what work it is called on to perform, and it has functioned in a variety of critical approaches to the literary history of the long eighteenth century. Papers invited on Menippean Satire, especially on the interaction of theory and literary history. Respondent will be Professor Howard Weinbrot of University of Wisconsin at Madison, author of Menippean Satire Reconsidered.
I have also heard from Jon-Christian Suggs that the John Jay College of Criminal Justice English Department is looking to hire a tenure-track faculty member in eighteenth-century literature. Ideally, they'd like someone whose interests include law, but they will happily consider candidates who concentrate on other topics. Personally, I'd also add that this job is great for anyone looking for a small, friendly, collegial department that also provides nearly limitless potential for contact with other schools, as part of the City University of New York. Also, CUNY students make up one of the most truly diverse populations anywhere on the planet, and teaching them is often a great pleasure. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about CUNY, but also send a letter of inquiry to Prof. Suggs (jsuggs at, who would be happy, I'm sure, to describe the position more fully.

Royal Society Journals Online


[Xposted to my blog]

In case any of our readers does not subscribe to C18-L:

Over 340 years of landmark science available for first time: "The complete archive of the Royal Society journals, including some of the most significant scientific papers ever published since 1665, is to be made freely available electronically for the first time today (14th September 2006) for a two month period" (heads up from Kevin Berland at C18-L).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Teaching Students to Use the Library?

This may seem like a bonehead teaching question/anecdote, but I was teaching my undergrad Intro to Lit Studies course yesterday, and I brought them to our (recently renovated) library for their usual "how to use the library resources" presentation that our librarians very helpfully provide here.

At the beginning of her little talk, when the librarian presenting asked my class how many had used the library catalogue before, a little less than half raised their hands. This was a little surprising to me, because these were supposed to be (entering) English majors. Presumably they'd been asked to do research papers in other classes, English or otherwise. Have they been writing papers using materials entirely from online sources? (my suspicion from listening to their questions about online sources) Or had they never done their own research, and done essentially prefabricated topics? Or had they never bothered to use the web catalogue before, and simply hunted around until they found what they needed? It was hard to tell.

The University of Houston is a commuter school, and the students who work are necessarily zooming on and off campus all day, so I'm not surprised that they may not have time to explore the libraries. But it seemed to me that it would be hard to be an English major in the traditional sense of the term, or to do research of any kind, without having some familiarity with a library. But I could be wrong about this.

So how many of you take the time in your classes to show students how to use their library resources, or to do the kinds of research necessary for research papers or projects? Do you think this kind of training or experience is important for the teaching you do?


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How We'll Read McKeon's Secret History, Oct. 3-5

Hello all,

Well, I checked out my library's copy of McKeon's Secret History of Domesticity, which we'll be reading Oct. 3-5, and discovered that it's . . . . really, really big. And heavy. And heavily footnoted. Frankly, I thought it merited a quarto printing with a nice leather binding, though that might have raised the price a bit too high. But you get the idea.

Here's the suitably monumental webpage from Johns Hopkins, with some early blurbs.

Undaunted, though, I'm getting ready for our Collective Reading, which I think we'll need to divide up to make sure the whole thing gets discussed in a reasonably comprehensive way across the three days of discussion. Each respondent will kick it off with a mini-essay about the segment under review, and then others will be able to follow up. Michael will definitely come in on the last day, and might be able to take up points earlier on in discussion, if his schedule permits.

I'm having trouble pasting the Table of Contents pages (Carrie, help!), but you should be able to find them via this link to

What you'll find is that Michael has conveniently divided his book into three parts, following his Introduction. The first, "The Age of Separations," runs pp. 3-322; the second, "Domestication as Form," 323-468; the third, "Secret Histories," 469-718. We'll focus on one segment at a time on October 3, 4, and 5th.

Though I haven't gone very far, the first part seems to engage with the debates over the public sphere and public opinion we've discussed here, the second seems to deal with questions of genre, and the last with that peculiar early modern genre, the secret history in all its variations.

I look forward to hearing from all of you about this very interesting book.



Monday, September 11, 2006

Clarissa's Anger

Carrie's post about emotional responses to literature has made me reflect a little about why I value Richardson's depiction of the passions, and it brought home to me one of Richardson's peculiar gifts: portraying moral indignation, which in Clarissa's case never devolves into an inarticulate rage, but instead focuses itself into a merciless and clear-eyed view of her opposition, in all its weakness and selfishness.

Here's a passage that caught my eye while preparing my first Clarissa class this past week. I don't think I ever noticed it before, but it seemed this week like a remarkable record of C's discovery of her own resolve to defy her family. It happens in Letter 20, just after Mamma Harlowe begs her to obey her and her father, and to follow their direction by marrying Solmes straightaway, to prove the freeness of her heart from Lovelace.

Affected by my mamma's goodness to me . . . I could not but wish it were possible for me to obey. I therefore paused, hesitated, considered, and was silent for a considerable space. I could see that my mamma hoped that the result of this hesitation would be favorable to her arguments. But then, recollecting that all was owing to the instigations of a brother and a sister, wholly actuated by selfish and envious views; that I had not deserved the treatment I had of late met with; that my disgrace was already become the public talk; that my aversion to their man was too generally known to make my compliance either creditable to myself or to them, as it would demonstrate less of duty than of a slavish, and even a sordid mind, seeking to preserve its worldly fortunes by the sacrifice of its future happiness; that it would give my brother and sister a triumph over me, and over Mr Lovelace, which they would not fail to glory in; and which, although it concerned me but little to matter on his account, yet might be attended with fatal mischiefs--And then Mr. Solmes's disagreeable person, his still more disagreeable manners, his low understanding . . . . And as Mr. Solmes's inferiority in this respectable faculty of the human mind . . . would proclaim to all future, as well as present observers, what must have been my mean inducement--All these reflections, which are ever present with me, crowding upon my remembrance: I would, madam, said I folding my hands with an earnestness that my whole heart was engaged in, bear the greatest tortures, bear loss of limb, and even of life, to give you peace. But this man, every moment I would at your command think of him with favor, is the more my aversion. You cannot, indeed you cannot, think how my whole soul resists him!--And to talk of contracts concluded upon; of patterns; of a short day!--save me, save, oh my dearest mamma, save your child, from this heavy, from this insupportable evil!-- (p. 111, Penguin edn.)

For me, the remarkable thing about this passage is the slow burn that builds just after the silence (or stalemate) shared by mother and daughter, a silence immediately followed by the daughter's increasingly resentful memories of her previous unjust treatment. Most intriguing is C's awareness of the public nature of their fight, which convinces her that she would lose face if she capitulated to her brother and sister. C's exemplarity is her counterpart to Lovelace's notions of honor: it is a form of social obligation, obliging her to behave a particular way to preserve her own reputation. It is this secure knowledge of her exemplarity that encourages her to defy openly her mother's wishes, even as she begs like a child for her mamma's protection. From the very beginning of this remarkable paragraph, the scene tracks both characters through an extraordinarily varied set of moods.

This is what I was talking about when I said that emotional responses in scenes such as these inevitably entangle us in ethical questions: how is Clarissa to act, if she is not to behave in a sordid, slavish manner? Could you even begin to distinguish between the emotional and critical in writing about such a scene?

What do you (meaning all you odd ducks out there) think?


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Michael McKeon Collective Reading scheduled for October 3-5

I'm happy to report that we've confirmed Michael McKeon's participation in our first Collective Reading, for October 3-5. Carrie and I will prepare responses to post on the first and second days of discussion, and I'm hoping to get at least one or two more guest respondents for the event. Michael has graciously agreed to respond to our discussion, and is looking forward to this opportunity to discuss his new book, The Secret History of Domesticity (Johns Hopkins, 2006). Thanks once again to Kathy Alexander at JHUP for helping us set this up.

We are planning to make this a regular feature on this blog, so that we can spotlight important new books in eighteenth-century studies.

Since we still have slots available, if you'd like to be one of our guest respondents, please contact me offlist at And please continue to write in with suggestions for other books to read this year.

Please feel free to cross-post this announcement to any other listservs or forums that you think would be interested.

Best wishes,


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Why do we prefer one historical interpretation over another?

Miriam's post about Cowan and Habermas, as well as Jen's earlier post about Watt and other theorists of the novel, made me wonder about a fundamental aspect of our scholarly practices: why do we prefer one interpretation over another?

We often talk one interpretation "winning out" over others, or of one historian or critic emerging as the "standard account" over the claims of rivals, but we rarely analyze this process of persuasion hardening into institutionalization. (Offhand, I can think of Fish, or Kuhn, or maybe Samuel Weber, but it's surprisingly hard to think of examples)

One interesting writer on this question is F.R. Ankersmit, whose Narrative Logic (Martinus Nijhoff, 1983) I've been working through lately.

FRA distinguishes between the internal and external questions provoked by historical narratives: internal questions are "posed only on the basis of something mentioned in the [narrative]; [while] "external questions" may be formulated from any conceivable perspective" (30). FRA talks about the common scholarly situation in which two competing interpretations of the same subject-matter come about, "the first giving a satisfactory answer to all its internal questions while avoiding all the important questions that can be asked on the subject-matter, whereas the other answers at least a number of these questions, although sometimes unconvincingly."

FRA's example is the historiography of the persecution of witches. He describes how the 19c historian Lecky blamed the witch burnings on the stupidity, meanness, and superstitiousness of the medieval clergy. Keith Thomas, on the other hand, developed an entire causal argument about medieval superstition and the process of demythologization of Catholic dogma (30-1). Obviously, Thomas's explanation raises all sorts of new questions about what this "demythologization" entailed, but we nonetheless prefer the account of Thomas, which cannot resolve many of the issues it raises, to Lecky's. Though Lecky's account can answer its own internal questions more persuasively than Thomas's, it does seem to isolate witch-burning too much from other issues that remain external to its argument.

I think FRA's example helps explain how the broader explanation sometimes wins out against the narrower one, if we feel that the narrow explanation doesn't explain enough, or doesn't interest us in pursuing it further. It's hard to see, for example, how one could extend Lecky's explanation with further research.

So does Ankersmit's account of competing historical interpretations seem accurate to you? Is this why we still read Habermas or E.P. Thompson, even after others have written books on the subject-matter they helped to establish? What do you think?


Emotional responses to literature and scholarship

Bill Benzon at The Valve has an interesting post up about "tears and laughter" as critical responses to literature. His own post was inspired by Laura Carroll's answers to a "Name a Book that . . ." meme in which she gave Jane-Austen-only answers to questions like "One book that made you laugh" and "One book that made you cry." Benzon feels like laughter and tears have little to do with his own critical work, but he wonders how much others think about emotional response as a part of their work.

I suggested, in my comment there, that this seems to be a common and explicit part of much literary and historical study in our period. I thought, first, about Jim Chevallier's post about the "almost infantile pleasure" and excitement of the eighteenth century, and Sharon Howard's post expressing genuine thrill in the face of so many wonderful, individual, untold stories in her work on plebian and criminal accounts. For me, as I've said before, the eighteenth-century novel surprised me by being not just "interesting," but deeply moving, emotionally, and genuinely entertaining.

In conversations with other people who teach eighteenth-century texts, I've heard almost universal agreement that it is an especially difficult era because the authors seem to expect that readers develop sympathetic emotions in order to understand the moral or intellectual arguments. That is, the feeling comes before the understanding, just as Hume suggests it does in An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Those who don't empathize, laughing or crying along, seem not to understand what the author is getting at. Those who do can't understand why the other half of the class is so sullen and silent.

Last semester, I went to a wonderful talk by Prof. Carrie Hintz of Queens College on her research into Restoration-era spousal biographies. Her talk was extremely detailed, learned, and analytical, meeting every criterium for an excellent intellectual exercise, but, at more than one point in the talk, she brought up how personally moved she was by reading these works, that it had a similar effect on her as watching a romantic dramatic movie. No one would suggest that her emotional investment could have compromised her work, which was so clearly excellent, and yet that comment certainly made everyone sit up in their chairs. I remember hearing many of my fellow grad students approach her afterward to say things like, "This is why I study Cavendish! She makes me excited to be alive!" It was liberating to hear a role model speak so earnestly about emotional response.

I've noticed that other eighteenth-century scholars often talk about this personal, visceral, emotional reaction quite freely around others working in the period, but to do so in "mixed company" often comes out sounding like an admission of guilt. Are we embarrassed by our emotional investment in the texts? Scholars of other periods seem to worry that this emotional investment may spoil analysis, but we seem to take for granted, as a discipline, that Clarissa makes us gasp and cry and Evelina makes us wince and laugh. I even feel that my understanding of Samuel Johnson's aesthetics has improved with the refinement of my emotional sensitivity to reading.

And I've begun to bring this deeply visceral kind of interpretation to works in other periods as well. While discussing Donne with my class yesterday, I kept trying to talk to them about why the Holy Sonnets give me goosebumps, and how deeply shocking and blush-producing I find his elegy "To His Mistress Going to Bed." I felt like they were thinking through the poems, but a little shy or unpracticed at feeling through them, which, biased as I am to the connection between the two, I hope to be able to urge them to do.

Are we just odd ducks? Is it that there is such a clear Humean association between emotional sensitivity and moral understanding? Is it that there is a deep suspicion in current scholarship of the possibilities of individual emotional response as interpretation? Do you find that your treatment of the emotional content of texts changes either with the period of the work or with the company you're keeping?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Great News! McKeon will participate in our first Collective Reading. Details to come.

Great News! I've contacted Johns Hopkins University Press, and they are helping us set up our first Collective Reading of Michael McKeon's Secret History of Domesticity in the next month or so. McKeon has agreed to participate, though I still need to arrange the timing and other details. I'll post additional information as it comes in. Thanks to Kathy Alexander at JHUP for helping expedite this.

Thanks to all of you for your suggestions, and we'll see if we can start scheduling additional events once we see how this works out. If you have additional books or events you'd like to suggest, please send them along.

This looks like a very promising event, and I hope it will become the first in a series of online discussions of contemporary scholarship.

Best wishes,


Monday, September 04, 2006

Coffeehouses/public sphere

[Xposted to my blog]

A couple of weeks ago Henry Farrell posted about Brian Cowan’s The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the English Coffee House. Fascinating review and illuminating discussion (in more ways than one) in the comments. Quibble, and not having read the book: I think Farrell overstates when he describes "the typical academic view of the coffeehouse" "as the empirical manifestation of Jurgen Habermas’s 'public sphere'." Surely anyone with a passing knowledge of the period knows that the ideals of rationality and civility were more honoured in the breach? I wonder just to what extent the Habermasian ideal has been taken literally, at least with regards to coffeehouses?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Posts on teaching

Our own George Williams has just posted the beginning-of-the-semester Teaching Carnival on his own blog. There are great posts on how we decide what our students call us, regional differences in student introductions, wonderful (and less wonderful) first-day surprises, and expectations for the semester. Enjoy!

[For those of you new to the Carnival genre, a blog carnival on a particular topic is a post by one blogger in which many various recent posts on the topic are organized and described for you, the curious reader.]

Final Call, Collective Readings

From the comments received so far, it seems that Michael McKeon's Secret History of Domesticity (Johns Hopkins, 2005) has edged out Ruth Perry's Novel Relations (Cambridge, 2004) for our first collective reading. However, if others have additional suggestions they'd like us to pursue, please let us know soon.

My suggestion is that we shoot for the first or second week in October to do this. I'll contact the publisher to see if I can get a review copy; I'll also see if McKeon is interested in replying to our discussion. I like the Valve's process of having one or two respondents prepare a brief post to kick things off, so I think the review copy could go to whoever wants to do one of the leadoff posts.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions about this. I'm looking forward to our discussions.

Best wishes,