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Monday, March 26, 2007
Oscar Wilde and the Quirks of the Academic Review
I’m reading literary biographer extraordinaire Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde and, as I always do with scholarly material, I hopped onto JSTOR to read reviews. (Were this another sort of post, I’d write something about why I feel the need to read reviews of every scholarly monograph I read. Were this another sort of post, I’d write about how frustrating it is to not be able to find any reviews of scholarly monographs until five years after they’ve been published. Were this another sort of post, I’d announce that our solution to this problem is host yet another book event, this time on Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. But this is not another sort of post.) As I was saying, I was sifting reviews of Oscar Wilde when I stumbled upon a review of Melissa Knox’s Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide. Its reputation seems to hinge on how the reviewer feels about vulgar Freudianism—recent concessions about literary Freudianism aside, I think my position on psychoanalysis sufficiently established—still, I’m baffled by the final sentence of John Stokes’ review:
A book as profoundly wrong-headed as this can never produce the right answer for the very reason that psychic processes are of their very nature over-determined, which is also why the debate about Wilde and syphilis will fester for a long while yet.
I understand that this is one of those rare cases in which literary interpretation can yield a correct answer—Oscar Wilde either (1) did or (2) did not contract syphilis—so the nod to “the right answer” is not throwing me here. Nor is it the pun on syphilitic discourse—although I wonder whether the question of Wilde carried what the English called morbus gallicus ("the French disease") and the French called la maladie anglaise ("the English disease") will fester in quite the same way its trademark pox will. What confuses me is that Stokes seems to identify as “profoundly wrong-headed” the very methodology he employed in judging it “profoundly wrong-headed.”
This oddity can be attributed to a problem with conventional academic reviews. Unlike the popular arbiter-of-taste—who, if not a known quantity, borrows some cultural capital from the venue in which the review is published—no one assumes any academic reviewer is without methodological bias. There is no singular conception of quality to which an academic reviewer can pretend to measure a work against. Despite this, most academic reviews are written as if there were, the result being strange compressions like the one quoted above.
Obviously, this isn’t the only problem with academic reviews, and my annoyance is such that I may even start a series in which I complain and complain and complain ...
Friday, April 13, 2007
The Novel of Purpose
Readers may well wonder how “transatlantic studies” constitutes an alternative to the familiar practice of Anglo-American criticism—or, for that matter, any other form of comparative criticism. Most nineteenth-century specialists, for example, are well aware of Poe’s influence in France, Scott’s influence in America, or Hawthorne’s influence in England. “Influence,” however, suggests an external pressure—an active force impressing itself on a possibly passive recipient. By contrast, Paul Giles has argued, the new comparative criticism “involves not simply an easy elision of the national into the transnational, but rather a consideration of various points of friction where these two discourses intersect” . Transatlantic criticism, then, aims to unsettle our neat professional divisions as well as our neat national divisions. It posits that there is an ongoing, mutually constitutive--and mutually disruptive--relationship between national literatures. “Influence” is no longer the keyword; instead, critics turn to the language of “intersection, interaction, and intervention”—registering a debt to postcolonial criticism in the process . As the rapidly proliferating “inter-” prefixes suggest, transatlantic studies finds British literature “in” America and vice-versa, whether uncomfortably so or otherwise.Continue reading "The Novel of Purpose"
The Novel of Purpose, By Way of Introduction
No one here needs me to tell them that disciplines are odd beasts, but I will anyway. Jobs are apportioned on the basis of small slices of time and big swaths of land. For example, I’m an Americanist. Practically speaking, this means I can only apply for Americanist jobs. I’m also a 19th century Americanist, further limiting my possibilities. These disciplinary demands shape my dissertation—whatever I write, I need to know it can be published in American Literature or American Literary History. (English Literary History claims to publish works on “major works in English and American literature,” but when I opened my latest copy, I was not shocked to find five essays on George O’Brien Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, and one on Nathaniel Hawthorne.) For a project like mine, such professional imperatives chafe like an angry sea. How do I write a proper Americanist dissertation about the reception of Anglo- and Continental evolutionary theory? Do I give the source material—Darwin, Lamarck, Spencer, &c.—short shrift, and focus instead on the aesthetic and moral theories American authors built on it? But what if those theories are themselves indebted to Anglo- and Continental thought? (As was the case with Silas Weir Mitchell, whose thought owes more to Keats and Ruskin than Emerson and Howells.)
To the lay reader, addressing Anglo-American literary and intellectual culture through a nationalist paradigm must seem the height of academic parochialism. On my side of the pond, the legacy of American exceptionalism and the culture of specialization disfigured national and literary history, slicing away until the face in the mirror resembled a disciplinary ideal more than the historical record. Over the past decade, the situation has improved. Most scholars date the change to the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), but I suspect the real impetus was a collective awakening, a recognition that the effort it took not to admit Dickens into a study of American literature was expenditure wasted. Whatever the cause, the last ten years has been a boom-time for studies of transnational literary cultures (broadly defined). Still, the title of Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner’s important anthology, The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800 (1996) points to one blind spot of post-national critical discourse: the 19th century. (It looms, but for reasons I will discuss during the event, rarely does it enter the frame.) So it goes without saying that Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose is a welcome addition to an already lively conversation.
Over the next few days, I’ll address Amanda’s argument in more detail. For now, I only wanted to explain why I think the book important enough to be subjected to an event. Wait, did I say “subjected to”? I meant “the subject of.” I can’t imagine anyone would find the experience unpleasant. (He says, crossing his fingers.)
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Amanda Claybaugh, Part 1: The Fiction of the Thing
Those of you interested in the social and political functions of literature should seek out Amanda Claybaugh’s new study, The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World.
Because Claybaugh’s text is so crucially informed by the history of her period (the 19th Century), it is natural to describe her accomplishment in terms of the literary specializations with which it overlaps (19th Century American studies, Victorian literary studies), and which it seeks to challenge. It is also natural to describe Claybaugh’s project as “fundamentally historicizing,” as Paul Giles has done in his illuminating post.
For my part, I have no wish to confine The Novel of Purpose within a disciplinary frame, even one re-imagined more generously; to do so seems to me to fall short of a text that challenges boundaries and limits wherever it finds them. If Claybaugh’s book is historically grounded—and it is, brilliantly so—it historicizes in a fashion that allows Giles to quote relevant examples from Alexander Pope and Chaucer.
Furthermore, I am afraid that Ms. Claybaugh’s decision to cite historians and primary documents exclusively, without citing any theorists besides Georg Lukacs, may create the impression of a historicism that ranges itself “against theory.” For me, the most exciting feature of The Novel of Purpose consists in its challenging appropriations of Continental philosophy.
Amanda Claybaugh, Part 2: The Comedy of Defamiliarization
In my first post on Amanda Claybaugh’s book The Novel of Purpose, I suggested that she preferred collectivist organizations to the fictions of individual identity and national identity. I also argued that Claybaugh understands literary categories such as “realism” and “temperance narratives” similarly, as purposive, arbitrary umbrellas, rather than as organic wholes.
I ended with Claybaugh’s discussion of Henry James, and suggested that her admiration for James was related to James’s own embrace of the 19th Century literary tradition in France. In this post, I will explore the critical questions that haunt Claybaugh’s text:
• What about the figure of the author in France, as analyzed and codified by Pierre Bourdieu, appeals to Claybaugh?
• How does Claybaugh reconcile her own social conscience, and her concerns about the status of women, colonized subjects, and the poor, with her mistrust of reformist narratives that seek to help? Why is she drawn to comic writers like Twain and Dickens, who parody reform, and to novels like Felix Holt that ironize it somberly?
• What, exactly, does Claybaugh think the novel ought to do, and how does this relate to the strange recurrence of Don Quixote (as, of all things, the realist novel par excellence) at the beginning and end of her book? How does it explain her epilogue about Twain’s successfully reformist pamphlet on the plight of the Congolese?
My answer, confirmed again in Claybaugh’s marvelous comment here, is that Claybaugh wishes to substitute the ironic novel of defamiliarization for the earnest novel of purpose. This is how she marks the transition from the novel of purpose to the modernist novel, and it is why she admires the self-otherness of cosmopolitan writers like James.
Monday, April 16, 2007
The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Gregory Garvey
Gregory Garvey is Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Brockport. He is author of Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America and editor of The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform. He has served as director of the Director of the SUNY Center on Russia and the USA, at Moscow State University and as Fulbright Senior Scholar at St. Petersburg State University.
The two dialogues at the center of this book—British/American and reform/novel—must have been hugely difficult to orchestrate. It might just be because my own interests, but I felt the tension between reform culture and the developing conventions of the novel answered and raised the most questions. This dimension of Amanda Claybaugh’s book has made me think of a distinction between two ways of pursuing cosmopolitan discourses. On the one hand there is work like Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters which makes a structuralist argument regarding the economies and politics through which literature flows amongst borders and identities. Casanova tries to map out flows, the motives of flows, places where literary culture accumulates, etc. On the other hand there are projects like John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples in which he takes his theory of “justice as fairness” and goes global, trying to imagine the ways people with fundamentally different value systems can construct what he refers to as “decent” societies. A recent example of this line is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. This line is focused less on mapping the structure and internal tension of reform and more on analyzing the obstacles that prevent or slow change.
Amanda Claybaugh’s book is, I think, more like Casanova’s in that it tries to create a complicated and subtle map of simultaneous change in several spheres of cultural production. It is amazing the rigor with which Claybaugh stays on topic—almost never swerving away from the study of literary representation into the rough-and-tumble of struggles amongst social reform activists. This book contains the tensions of reform within a discussion of literary production and reception more thoroughly and productively than anything else I have read. It also manages to do it in a period of very significant change in the conventions of the novel and during a kind of golden age of reform culture. The pressure that Claybaugh puts on her authors to explain how tropes, conventions, and goals of reform animate their narratives and define their characters has revealed processes of thought and evolution and are important to understanding the relationship between politics and aesthetics in this period.Continue reading "The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Gregory Garvey"
The Criticism of Purpose: Guest Post by Caroline Levine
Caroline Levine is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (forthcoming from Blackwell this July) and The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (2003), which won the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies. She recently published an article called “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies” (Victorian Studies), and she is now co-editing a collection of essays with Mario Ortiz-Robles called Narrative Middles.
So many elegantly intertwined strands make up Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose that it’s not surprising to see Valve contributors move in different directions, as they take up the substantial implications of Claybaugh’s productive and thought-provoking book: the problem of transatlantic studies, the political and ethical efficacy of literary representation, the novel’s relation to other disciplines and genres, the relationship between formalist and historicist research, and of course her own two crucial and complex central questions—reform and realism.Continue reading "The Criticism of Purpose: Guest Post by Caroline Levine"
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Origins of the novel of reform?
Reading Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose has made me think deeply about my own period of study, the eighteenth-century novel, in the light of her arguments about the novel’s sense of “purpose” and where that impulse begins in the earliest years of the English novel. As she argues in the case of Dickens, the reformist narrative of conversion often appears as an interpolated tale, as in The Pickwick Papers, framed within a narrative that renders the purpose of that conversion story ironic, or at least ineffective in its putative aims. The teller of the tale is disreputable, the audience of the tale is unmoved, and the tale itself, though frightening or moving in itself, is, by its context, rendered unmoving.
Immediately, I thought of the interpolated tales in Joseph Andrews andTom Jones, during which the characters listen to mens’ tales of dissipated living, resulting in eventual personal change in the former, and misanthropic dissatisfaction with society in the latter. The framing moral structures supplied in the prefaces to Moll Flanders and Pamela, and even in the last pages of Fanny Hill seem to do the same, from the inside out. The messages of personal reform that appear in the beginnings and endings of eighteenth-century novels about the life of sin and attempts to avoid it are rendered ironic (intentionally or unintentionally) by the inflaming pleasure offered by the sinful behavior depicted therein. Moll’s descriptions of her frankly pleasurable exploits in sex and thievery, the “warm scenes” between Pamela and Mr. B, the pornographic exploits of Fanny--they all stick with a certain kind of reader in a way that no amount of moralist justification can. Perhaps Claybaugh doesn’t address the frameworks of reform in novels before the early nineteenth century because the possible “reformist” content of eighteenth-century novels seems so universally dubious.Continue reading "Origins of the novel of reform?"
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose
Like everyone else this week, I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech. I fret over the university context one minute, the comparative one the next—two hundred people died senselesly in Iraq yesterday—but more than anything else, it is the professional context that dogs my mind. Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them. His plays are compelling evidence that Plato was onto something in Book X of The Republic: literature originates in the base, irrational place to which it appeals; and the production and consumption of it succours the worst in us. Put mildly, Cho’s work was not cathartic. He fell prey to the vicious cycle of unreason Socrates described.
As a senior English major at Virginia Tech, he could have taken courses that appeal to the most hardened culture warrior—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Augustan Literature, Romantic Literature, Renaissance Literature, &c.—or those the cultural studies side considers morally edifying—Ethnic Children’s Literature, Introduction to Women’s Literature, Introduction to African-American Literature, Literature and Ecology, Postcolonial Cultural Studies, Contemporary Horror, Women in Sport, &c. My intention is not to declare a pox on both houses, but to point to how thin this justification of our work is. One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist. On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read.
Which is what we say we do, careful as we are to pepper our conversations with “critical thinking” whenever we interact with the outside world. All of which dovetails with a long, unsatisfactory post I’ve written on The Novel of Purpose. In her discussion of Mark Twain, Claybaugh addresses Huck Finn‘s belated purposiveness via Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target. I have written previously of my admiration for Arac, but Idol and Target has always bothered me. Arac is right to say that the book has always been an exercise in self-congratulation—it is an abolitionist novel published in 1885—but as someone who has taught the novel three times now, I think his critical distance shows here. Students latch onto Huck’s declaration of war against Southern custom: “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck says after recognizing his shared humanity with the captured Jim. It is a powerful epiphanic moment, even if it leads to the odd fact, as Claybaugh writes, “[g]enerations of readers have identified with Huck and have in the process congratulated themselves as if they were alone in recognizing that slavery was wrong, that African Americans are human beings” (175).Continue reading "Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose"
Monday, April 23, 2007
The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Amanda Claybaugh
Amanda Claybaugh teaches in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. She is now at work on a book entitled The Literary History of Reconstruction, 1865-1910.
As we come to the end of this book event, I’d like to return to two topics that have been raised by several of the posts. The first is the relation between literary studies and social change. Taking up my argument that nineteenth-century novelists wrote in the shadow of the novel of purpose, Caroline Levine has suggested that we present-day critics write in the shadow of purposeful criticism. Like them, we know that our writings are expected to act upon the world—and, like them, we write with that expectation in mind.
In making this claim, Levine is most obviously skewering those critical works whose political gestures are no more sincere than the temperance fictions that Hawthorne and Whitman wrote when they were young and struggling. But she is also, I think, throwing into relief the continuities that exist between forms of scholarship and teaching that we think of as political and forms of scholarship and teaching that we think of in other ways. Such continuities structured the nineteenth-century literary world: contemporary critics used the term “novel of purpose” to refer not only to the small set of novels that were explicitly reformist in their intentions, but also to a whole host of other novels that sought to act in some sort of way on their readers and on the world. By putting *Middlemarch* in the same category as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mary Barton, these critics acknowledged that novelists had learned their conception of purposefulness from the writings of social reform.
Levine prompts us to recognize that similar continuities exist in our own critical world. They are particularly clear in Scott Eric Kaufman’s most recent post and in the discussion that followed it. In his post, Kaufman confesses to the admittedly naive expectation that the study of literature—or the teaching of literature—should have done something for Cho Seung-hui. But what, he asks, can the teaching of literature do? The answers offered in the comment thread oscillate from the explicitly political (teaching students to recognize that the work of racial justice remains undone) to the vaguely improving (teaching as a way of making a difference in students’ lives). What I think Levine’s proposed “criticism of purpose” helps us to see is that these positions are continuous with one another, rather than opposed, and that they both rely on the same purposeful conception of what our writing and teaching is expected to do.
The other topic that has come up in these posts is trans-Atlanticism. In the past ten years or so, trans-Atlanticism has been institutionalized as a recognized subfield in literary studies. (This is due, in no small part, to the work of Paul Giles). What is remarkable about this institutionalization, I would argue, is that it took place without any apparent opposition. This is in stark contrast to the subfields of feminist, African-Americanist, and ethnic studies, which have had to defend their attention to noncanonical works; and it is in contrast to those subfields, such as literary theory and visual culture, which have had to defend the value of their interdisciplinary approaches. Trans-Atlanticism, by contrast, has so far faced only pragmatic objections—and even these tend to be expressed in tones of regret. “That would be really interesting,” people say to the aspiring young trans-Atlanticist, “but how will you get a job? and who will publish your work?” These pragmatic objections have been losing their force, however, as more and more job postings list trans-Atlanticism as a desired subfield and new journals and series are established to publish trans-Atlantic work. And so trans-Atlanticism has been institutionalized without any real debate at all.
I’d like to believe that there was no debate because the value of trans-Atlanticism is simply inarguable, but I suspect that something more complicated is going on. I suspect that trans-Atlanticism is making a more radical claim than English departments are willing to acknowledge, and that the departments are ignoring this radical claim by pre-emptively embracing trans-Atlanticism as one subfield among many.
Subfields, after all, seek to expand literary study as it is currently practiced, either by adding new works to the existing canon or by combining literary approaches with approaches taken from other disciplines. Such expansions can seem threatening when they are first proposed, but in practice they tend to follow a happy process of addition that does not disturb the fundamental structures of the department: some new works are added to the existing syllabus, and some new courses are added to the curriculum. To be sure, these additions can sometimes entail subtractions (courses that are no longer offered, works that are no longer taught), but the old ways of doing things are still largely preserved.
So far, the English departments I know have treated trans-Atlanticism as a subfield like all the rest. They offer a handful of trans-Atlantic courses alongside the regular course offerings, which continue to be almost exclusively national in scope, particularly at the introductory level. In doing so, these departments refuse to acknowledge that trans-Atlanticism calls the national into question by asking why the national should always be the default. This, then, is the more radical claim that trans-Atlanticism makes: that the old syllabuses and old curricula do not need to be expanded, but rather re-configured.
Once we recognize that the actual reading and writing of literary works is only sometimes confined within national boundaries, then we must reverse subfield and field. British literature, US literature—these would be properly understood as rich and rewarding subfields of a field that we might call “literature in English.” As scholars, we could still choose to focus on the literature of one nation, as we might now choose to focus on African-American literature or queer literature or the literature of the US South. But as teachers, we would no longer be justified in taking for granted the priority of the nation.
All this is meant to be polemical: I’m committed to trans-Atlanticism, but I happily teach one lecture course on the nineteenth-century British novel and another on US Literature, 1865-1945. I’m being polemical because I think it’s long past time for us to begin debating the value of trans-Atlanticism—and, in particular, to begin debating how far we are willing to alter our ordinary ways of doing things in light of its radical claims. Because I think that the resistance to these claims has taken the silent form of refusing to reconceive such things as survey courses and graduate exams, I think this debate is most usefully prompted by the simple question: how should we organize the curriculum? I’m eager to hear what all of you think.
But before I close, permit me a final paragraph to say how very much I’ve enjoyed this book event. I’m grateful to the posters who read my book with such care and discussed it with such imagination and generosity; to the commenters who brought their own expertise to the conversation and made it much more rich; and to the powers that be at The Valve, particularly Scott Eric Kaufman and Miriam Burstein, for making these kinds of exchanges possible at all. Many, many thanks to all.