About Miriam Burstein
Miriam Elizabeth Burstein is an associate professor of English at the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where she teaches 19th-century British literature. A transplanted Southern Californian, she received her BA from UC Irvine and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Her scholarly interests include 19th-century religious fiction and polemics, the historical novel, and popular historiography. She can be found blogging at The Little Professor.
Posts by Miriam Burstein
Thursday, May 28, 2009
From novel to literary history…
As Dave Mazella and John Holbo have already noted Breeding‘s literary quality, I want to start off with some literature: Jenny Davidson’s first novel, Heredity (2003), which yokes together eighteenth-century Gothic tropes, the parallel-plot historical novel (popularized by A. S. Byatt), and an SF twist on fertility treatment. Elizabeth Mann, the novel’s updated sentimental Gothic heroine--given to cutting, no-strings sex, and drinking instead of tears, fainting fits, and extempore versification--gets her hands on a manuscript containing Mary Wild’s account of her life with Jonathan Wild, the notorious eighteenth-century criminal and thief-taker. Elizabeth, in London writing fake reviews for a low-rent tourist’s guide, decides that she “find[s] Jonathan Wild sexy” (5) after an afternoon contemplating his skeleton; soon obsessed with Wild, Elizabeth’s equal fascination with Mary’s story spurs her to declare that “I want to have Jonathan Wild’s baby. Well, not exactly his baby: his clone” (100). Research becomes erotic, a fantasy of knowing the past in the Biblical as well as the intellectual sense. At the same time, though, Elizabeth’s project (which leads to various disquisitions on the history of genetics, DNA, IVF, and so forth) sounds dangerously Gothic instead of historical: she wants to revive the past through a figurative act of necrophilia (no matter how dressed up in the appropriate scientific garb). Elizabeth wants to throw herself across the cultural and temporal gap between herself and her subject, achieving presence through what turns out to be a highly clinical (and hardly pleasurable) form of sexual union. Romancing the dead has definite drawbacks. In her desire for the dead, Elizabeth shuttles back and forth between identifying with Wild’s first wife, an apparently saintly ex-prostitute also named Elizabeth Mann, and the gingery Mary who replaces her. For that matter, her obsession with Wild replicates Wild’s own obsession with his Elizabeth Mann; in good Gothic fashion, the narrative’s figurative hauntings keep doubling. Ultimately, Elizabeth’s longing for the past turns out to be an attempt at escaping herself by creating “a child that would have nothing of myself in it” (222)--a revelation that emerges once Davidson pulls the rug out from under Elizabeth in good Radcliffean fashion, taking away the SF explanation for her pregnancy and substituting a far more rational (and more obvious) one in its place. The ultimately hopeful ending requires Elizabeth to acknowledge both the self she has tried to erase and the sheer pastness of the past: listening to the traces of Mary’s voice does not, after all, allow Elizabeth to “complete” what Mary and Elizabeth Mann could not do, nor does it enable her to stretch the boundaries of life and death. As the novel’s closing quotation from an eighteenth-century newspaper suggests, the past cannot be undone, and refusing to acknowledge it--Mary “hadn’t the heart” to incorporate it into her story (231)--alters nothing.
Reading Breeding against Heredity, one suspects at first that Elizabeth Mann’s eroticized vision of history exerts a strong pull. Davidson describes her work as “plunging into a vast sea of eighteenth-century materials and welcoming the sheer disorientation that accompanies such an act of self-immersion” (6) and “patterning the material not so much like a monograph as like an oratorio or a grand country dance” (12). For both reader and writer, Breeding’s figures for the past turn out to be physical, even sensual: we dive into historical difference so as to be overwhelmed, dizzied, shocked, even as we also dance and play. Still, unlike Elizabeth, Davidson has no interest in replicating the past in the present: if anything, the book’s “partial” nature highlights the extent to which a certain kind of scholarly desire for “completion” is itself a doomed obsession with the dead. (Middlemarch‘s Mr. Casaubon rears his skeletal head.) Breeding is unapologetically fragmentary and incomplete, even within the limited confines of the monograph (a scholarly genre that usually combines a narrowly delimited field of research with intense detail). By the same token, it reminds the reader that even the use of periodization obscures partiality: we are not reading about “the eighteenth century,” but about “the eighteenth century” in Britain, with some occasional excursions to America (colonial and USA) and France. In fact, in its cheerful disregard for all sorts of chronological boundaries--we’re off with Shakespeare one moment, the Bell Curve the next--Breeding casts itself as the anti-monograph. Nevertheless, while Davidson’s avowedly anti-Whiggish project encourages the reader to think that the present could have happened otherwise, the book does succumb at the end to the possibility of historical use-value. Thus, concluding her discussion of the eighteenth-century elocution movement, Davidson comments that the story offers “a cautionary tale about breeding and its shibboleths, one that remains highly relevant to our own time” (196). This moment suggests the pull not so much of the monograph, but of history’s extremely traditional role (well predating the eighteenth century) as a source for lessons in civic virtue. Indeed, the conclusion, with its cautious advocacy for Galen’s interest in “perfectibility” as “a way of throwing off the tyranny of low expectations, for ourselves as well as for others” (204), reinstates history’s role in thinking about ethics and morality--a role that has not exactly gone by the wayside over the past few decades. This, I think, is Breeding‘s equivalent to the “Radcliffe” moment: after challenging the reader’s expectations about the forms of scholarly inquiry, the book nevertheless ends up reaffirming some very traditional notions about why historical scholarship is not only useful, but necessary.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910
Epic poetry was once considered the most exalted form of poetry; not coincidentally, writing a great epic was supposed to be part and parcel of the career trajectory of any major poet. Herbert F. Tucker’s Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910 is, suitably enough, not just about the epic, but at 737 pages (counting the index), manages to be epic in scope. (The division into twelve chapters may be a sly joke, given the magic number of “twelve books” in nineteenth-century epic.) In heft and, to a slightly lesser extent, subject matter, Epic shares shelf space with its acknowledged forebears, Howard Weinbrot’s rumbustious Britannia’s Issue and Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry. Given the trend towards shorter and shorter books, especially in recent years, a “big” book is itself a tribute to the author’s academic capital. Moreover, the literary-historical subject matter departs in focus from Tucker’s two well-known monographs on Browning and Tennyson: instead of closely studying an individual, canonical author, Tucker now ranges widely over what is frequently uncharted territory. This is the literary historian as Odysseus, as it were.Continue reading "Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910"
Saturday, April 05, 2008
Linking about: Illustrating Milton
- The Iconography of Paradise Lost (multiple illustrators, including Hayman, Medina, Fuseli, Dore; George Klawitter)
- Blake’s 1808 Paradise Lost (posted by Don Ulin)
- John Martin’s Paradise Lost Mezzotints (Spaightwood Galleries)
- Henry Fuseli’s Paradise Lost paintings & engravings: Dallas Museum of Art, Tate Britain (scroll down)
- Blake’s Paradise Regained (Blake Archive)
- Terrance Lindall’s Illustrations to Paradise Lost (Williamsburg Art & Historical Center)
- The Classic Text: Paradise Lost (includes both illustrations and images of various editions; UWisc-Madison)
- James Gillray’s Sin, Death, and the Devil (NYPL)
- Blake’s "Comus" (Blake Archive)
- Blake’s "On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity" (Blake Archive)
- Blake’s "L’Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" (Blake Archive)
- An overview of the history of Milton illustration (Wendy Furman-Adams)
- Citizen Milton (Bodleian online exhibition, which includes various illustrations by Fuseli, Blake, etc.)
- Living at This Hour (Cambridge University Library exhibition with some illustrations)
- Robert J. Wickenheiser Collection of John Milton (University of South Carolina; includes link to PDF exhibition catalog)
- A bibliography, including illustrators (J. Martin Evans)
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
Monday, December 17, 2007
Profession 2007: “Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion”
What follows are some scattered observations about both the task force’s report and the various responses to it. (The Valve got a mention from Caroline Levine, incidentally, as one of the “[s]ites for intellectual exchange about books and ideas” (103) now proliferating on the Web.)
Continue reading "Profession 2007: “Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion”"
Sunday, September 09, 2007
I’m discussing MLA style with my graduate students the week after next, a subject that never fails to generate
polite yawns passionate enthusiam from all concerned, and, by a circuitous route, this led me to thinking about blogs. Specifically, what happens when our article or book project incorporates material we’ve discussed on our blog, or at least says something which vaguely resembles (or more than vaguely resembles) something we’ve previously written on our blog. After all, one common argument in favor of academic blogs is that they allow us to wax eloquent (possibly) about our work-in-progress. To my knowledge, there are as yet no rules for defining what, in the context of later print publication, a blog post is.
1) Treat the blog as, in effect, a public working draft?
2) As a conference paper?
3) As a previous publication?
In the first instance, it wouldn’t be necessary to mention the previous appearance of your idea/concept/paragraph, much as one wouldn’t mention the (obvious) existence of a working draft--not necessarily even one circulated to a reading group (depending on a journal’s house style, as some don’t allow courtesy acknowledgments). The second instance commonly calls for some sort of footnote, briefly noting that such-and-such developed from a conference paper delivered at X. (But again, that doesn’t always happen.) In the third instance, you would have to go the whole hog and include formal permission from the previous publisher; in the case of a blog, obviously, that model wouldn’t quite function.
What think you? Or, if you’ve actually developed scholarly work from a blog post or posts, how have you gone about acknowledging it?
Monday, July 23, 2007
The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel
[Disclaimer: I both know the author and am thanked in the preface (as part of the Western New York Victorianists Group).]
Students have been known to run shrieking from the room at the very sight of Bleak House. Even full-blown academics occasionally break into whimpers of agony when faced with Middlemarch. While no Victorian novel ever attained the glorious excess of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa--which, in its most recent Penguin edition, is approximately the size of your average Norton anthology--it’s still the case that Victorian fiction is, for lack of a better way of putting it, very there. But modern editions of Victorian novels are far less there than the nineteenth-century originals, which spill out into sometimes endless serials (anyone up for Varney the Vampire?), parts, volumes, and cheap editions.Continue reading "The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel"
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"
Book Event: Amanda Claybaugh, The Novel of Purpose
Beginning today, the Valve will be hosting a book event devoted to Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Professor Claybaugh (Columbia University) has kindly agreed to join the mix of regular Valve authors and special guest posters. Scott Eric Kaufman and I will be starting things off this afternoon, with much more to follow over the next few days.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The historicist’s useful fiction
Bill Benzon’s post on aesthetic vs. ethnographic criticism, which notes that the ethnographic critic "simply needs to be interested in culture wherever and however it is," leads me to wonder about one of the ethnographic critic’s key but frequently unstated difficulties: not what any given author knew, but what s/he likely did not know. The historicist critic, in particular, is easily tempted to speak of what an author "probably" knew, or "certainly" knew, or maybe "must have" known. This historical novelist must have been aware of that ongoing theological controversy; that poet surely was acquainted with this other contemporary political debate; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It’s very tempting, in other words, to posit a completely informed author--especially since imagining such an author justifies us in situating his work in a purportedly relevant "context." We don’t really have a critical language for dealing with authors who might have been (at best) only partly aware of their current intellectual and political surroundings, or even (at worst) completely oblivious to them. And yet, even a quick moment of introspection will reveal the massive gaps in our own understanding of something as undemanding as, say, contemporary pop culture, let alone current politics or even the scholarship outside our own field. Some resemblances among discourses are accidents, after all, not signs of contact between high and low culture or political and literary languages.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
Friday, November 24, 2006
Little Professor in the House
[Some holiday silliness, crossposted from The Little Professor by popular demand (OK, by Scott’s demand). In case you’re wondering, lecturing on Walter Pater just before Thanksgiving break appears to be contraindicated.]
[As the episode begins, the PATIENT OF THE WEEK--a small Victorianist--is striding about the classroom, gesticulating as she goes.]
PoTW: What is a "hard, gemlike flame," exactly? Have any of you ever seen a hard flame? No?
[The STUDENTS, perhaps understandably unenthusiastic about Walter Pater at this late date in the semester, wearily shake their heads.]
PoTW: Well, let’s think about what Pater means. [Gesticulating even more energetically.] Can we connect the image to Pater’s earlier allusions to flames? [Moves about with greater determination.] What about his interest in energy and intensity?
[Suddenly, the PoTW stops moving. As the bemused STUDENTS look on, her face, neck, and hands suddenly blaze out in what appear to be letters of fire.]
STUDENT 1: Damn. I thought we were learning about Pater, not the One Ring.
STUDENT 2: Does this mean that she’s about to be reduced to a "tremulous wisp"? Because if she is, then she probably won’t be able to grade our papers.
[The PoTW collapses, screaming in agony. CUT to a hospital in Princeton, NJ, although why a PoTW from upstate NY has been transported to Princeton is not immediately clear.]Continue reading "Little Professor in the House"
Thursday, October 05, 2006
What we like
Early on, WBM tells us that "we love race--we love identity--because we don’t love class" (6). His choice of verb proves to be a little odd, because this is not a book in which anyone loves much of anything, let alone "identity." Instead, America turns out to be overpopulated by people who merely "like" things. We like "the differences we can appreciate" (6), "the middle class" (6), "stories in which the big problem is whether or not you fit in" (9), "the idea of cultural equality" (17), and "being proud of our culture" (18). And that’s just a non-exhaustive list from the introduction; the liking persists (tick-tock, tick-tock...) throughout the book. Apparently, Americans don’t have the emotional capital to make a lasting commitment to differences, classes, ideas, or what-have-you. We merely like them, as one might like chocolate ice cream or a moderately engaging daytime soap opera. Of course, if we can shunt identity into the category of things we merely "like," not "love," then jettisoning identity itself becomes a matter of changing taste.
WBM’s frequent recourse to "like," with its decided overtones of superficiality, may be a minor tic--but it highlights the more puzzling elements of this book. After all, WBM proposes what in effect amounts to a full social revolution, but neglects to inform us how we might go about doing such a thing. Instead, we have a very English professor-y sort of book (I’m an English professor--I can say that without too much fear of reprisal, I think), in which changing the subject of our national conversation comes to bear the same weight as altering the Constitution . Indeed, WBM’s claim that "our current notion of cultural diversity...in fact grew out of and perpetuates the very concepts it congratulates itself on having escaped" (7) itself grows out of and perpetuates a familiar interpretive strategy that it may or may not be congratulating itself on escaping. ("Author X’s critique of gendered subjectivities actually deploys the heterosexist logic that it claims to subvert.") More seriously, WBM’s critical faculties occasionally absent themselves when faced with other scholarly disciplines. His argument about race, for example, overconfidently appropriates current genetic research as though both its conclusions and its implications are settled, instead of still under heated debate (something that quickly becomes apparent by searching MEDLINE). Similarly, while he rightly distinguishes between "disagreement" and "prejudice" when it comes to current religious controversies (178) , it is not reassuring to find him seriously arguing that conservative Christian attitudes to homosexuality boil down to cherrypicking from Leviticus (184). Just because we don’t "like" those attitudes doesn’t mean that we get to ignore the actual intellectual history behind them (which is quite long and reasonably complex). And, as commenters at this site have already pointed out, WBM makes only the skimpiest of attempts to engage with actual economists. There’s certainly a point to this book, but some of us would like (or love) more of an argument for it.
One more issue: I can’t help wondering about how WBM defines "American history." How, he wonders, "is the Holocaust part of American history?" (53) Is "American history" defined by a concrete geographical boundary, or does it matter that an event outside America, experienced by people who may have later become American citizens (and witnessed at the end by American soldiers), may have had some sort of impact on American culture?
 As someone who specializes in literature from the other side of the pond, I can’t quite see the connection between "loving" to talk about class and inequality and doing something about inequality.
 Except that Ophelia Benson has been making this point over and over again.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) is one of the most ambitious literary-historical projects in recent years, akin to Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001). Although St. Clair’s title may suggest that the book covers relatively confined territory, it in fact ranges over everything from publishing practices in the sixteenth century to the fate of Frankenstein during the Victorian period, and everywhere from France to the United States. Moreover, St. Clair hardly confines his project to "merely" (as if it were mere) the study of Romantic-period audiences; instead, he offers a full-scale alternative to current practices in literary history.Continue reading "The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period"
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
A Sermon, on the Current Disputes Over Turning Off Cellphones in the British Library Reading Rooms;
You can use laptops
and take mobiles
in but please turn
off the sound
before you enter
a Reading Room.
As I wander the streets and Underground stations, I behold many men, women, and youths discoursing on their cellphones. Yea, they speak on the Tube. They speak on the sidewalks. They speak in cafes. They speak in the stores. Is there to be no end to these people forever speaking?
The British Library has decreed that certain things should work silently--the patrons of their Reading Rooms, for example. And yet, there is a dispute concerning the sacred text, which I have printed above: does it actually prohibit using cellphones in the British Library Reading Rooms? Or (as subtle minds have it) does it rather invite the aforementioned discoursings? I say unto you: the sanity of academics hangs in the balance.Continue reading "A Sermon, on the Current Disputes Over Turning Off Cellphones in the British Library Reading Rooms;"
Monday, May 15, 2006
Dr. Wortle’s School
Anthony Trollope’s late Dr. Wortle’s School (1880) is the kind of book that makes people think “subversive"--indeed, John Halperin, editor of the 1984 World’s Classics edition, describes it as “a novel far more ‘subversive’ than anything in the Dickens canon” . Dr. Wortle, our hero, has a problem: Mr. Peacocke, one of his fine assistants, has a lovely American wife who is, alas, not his wife. The Peacockes have been deceived into a bigamous marriage via the machinations of the odious Lefroy brothers--one of whom, Ferdinand, was/is married to Ella Peacocke. Instead of breaking up the household, however, the Peacockes (really, Mr. Peacocke) elect to remain a couple. Needless to say, by Victorian standards, cohabitation is not quite the thing. Oh, dear. What will Dr. Wortle do?Continue reading "Dr. Wortle’s School"
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
How Novels Think
To think about Nancy Armstrong thinking about the novel, we need to begin with Ian Watt.Continue reading "How Novels Think"