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
Sunday, March 12, 2006
We interrupt the high theory to bring you a question of pedagogy. I am currently up to my ears in a stack of papers (which, given my height, is not as altitudinous as it might otherwise be), and my students are telling me, with remarkable frequency and thoroughness, that Petrarchan sonnets have an octave and a sestet. Also that Shakespearean sonnets have three quatrains and a couplet. And that both generally consist of fourteen lines. (If, of course, you are either John Hollander or George Meredith, your sonnets may not consist of fourteen lines. Be that as it may.) Now, I am not complaining that my students can now recognize the difference between the two types of sonnet, given that the question “Shakespearean or Petrarchan?” frequently reduces whole classes to dazed silence. (Needless to say, that’s before one points out the existence of terza rima sonnets or Spenserian sonnets.) Similarly, I’m genuinely pleased that they know that sonnets are conventionally written in iambic pentameter; better still, the students even recognize iambic pentameter when it crosses their path.
However. There’s no reason for the students to unload any of this information in their papers. Quite the contrary, in fact. Certainly, they need to define the sonnet’s type, but they don’t need to tell me that sonnets have fourteen lines, that Shakespearean sonnets end with a couplet, and so forth. Similarly, the imagined reader (a.k.a. the real instructor) rarely needs to be told that Great Expectations is a “novel,” that “My Last Duchess” is a “poem,” etc., etc., etc. (Even less does the IR need to be told that Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is a “poem” or that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a “novel.")
As yet, I’ve found no reliable tactic for helping students evaluate what basic information needs to be in their papers, especially since those very same students might find themselves asked to do one thing on an exam and another thing in their essays. I’ve raised the question of common knowledge, for example, and pointed out that we (by which I mean the students and their IR, who is really yours truly) already know what a metaphor is, what a Horatian ode is, what a symbol is, and so on. Ergo, the student can get on with the business of writing the paper. But I suspect that many students may have been trained to presume that there’s no common knowledge out there at all.
Monday, January 30, 2006
(X-posted from The Little Professor.)
1. After reading Scott McLemee‘s article at Inside Higher Ed, I scooted off to Famous Plagiarists--and felt vaguely dissatisfied. The vague dissatisfaction arose from the "Literature" section, which features such luminaries as S. T. Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, and William Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde is nowhere to be seen, although the book version of The Picture of Dorian Gray includes a chapter distilled from J.-K. Huysmans‘ A Rebours (and, as Jerusha McCormack has pointed out more generally, "It is hard to say anything original about The Picture of Dorian Gray, largely because there is so little that is original in it" ). And Shakespeare’s "threat level" seems a bit low, given that King Lear appears to owe rather a lot to an earlier play.Continue reading "Plagiary"
Friday, December 16, 2005
Critical[X-posted, with some edits, from The Little Professor.]
I'm not exactly the most theoretically-inclined professor in contemporary academia; my interest in theory, with or without capital "T," is at best wholly pragmatic. And so I'm not altogether the best person to respond to Lindsay Waters' article in the CoHE (sorry, reg. req.). But perhaps other readers will share in my bemusement, befuddlement, or whatever be- you'd like to call it. What follows is not so much for Waters or against Waters--just an attempt to work through what he's saying.Continue reading "Critical"
Saturday, November 19, 2005
While I’ve always liked to think of myself as what a Hyde Park bookdealer once called the "blessedly pragmatic" type--in search of a working text instead of a collector’s item--I nevertheless have had a hard time overcoming my aversion to less-than-intact bindings. That’s a remarkably foolish aversion, given my line of work: cheap texts generally feature cheap bindings, and cheap bindings generally survive...cheaply. Let’s not even mention 1880s and 1890s paper, which has a dismaying tendency to (at best) turn autumnal shades of brown and (at worst) crumble into nothingness at the slightest touch. Recently, though, I’ve started acquiring vast quantities of sermons, and Victorian sermons usually come in states of collapse ranging from the nude (no covers) to the discombobulated (no stitching). So much for attractive-looking bookshelves.
My first excursion into the realm of what’s politely called "the reading copy" took place during graduate school, when I acquired my "dilapidated Disraeli." To be more precise, I acquired Edmund Gosse’s deluxe limited edition of Disraeli’s novels. At one point, this was a remarkably pretty set (see here and here); now, alas, poor Dizzy has become spineless. It doesn’t help that the leather is slowly but surely crumbling, producing random showers of colored dust. For many years, this set hosted the only truly decrepit books in my collection, but it is acquiring a multitude of new friends. The sermons, for example. My copy of the British Pulpit, Vol. II, has covers; if only they were attached to the text block. As it now stands, when I’m forced to choose between not having an important text and having one that looks like a special guest corpse on Law & Order, the corpse wins every time. I’m delighted to finally have a decent complete set of John Lingard, even if he seems determined to prove that a book and its binding are soon parted; similarly, I’m pleased to have Neander on my shelves, even if his spines have a nasty habit of falling on the floor. Obviously, a book on the verge of imminent collapse can make for awkward reading experiences--it’s most unnerving to watch one silently disintegrate over the course of an evening. (There are times when "deconstruction" takes on a whole new meaning.) Still, better a book in fragments than no book at all.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Where do little books come from?
At first glance, the traces of a book’s ownership--bookplates, gift inscriptions, signatures, stamps--seem wonderfully revelatory. Here, in other words, is proof that a book had an audience. Moreover, in the case of Victorian prizebooks, we can often identify the audience’s religious composition (Reformed, Anglican, Catholic, and so forth). But, at second glance, things rapidly become more confusing. Who read these books, who bought them, and who decided to keep them? Here are a few examples:Continue reading "Where do little books come from?"
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Library Thing is proving to be a wonderful distraction from freshman comp essays and administrative paperwork. The site, active since late August, uses a simple interface: type in some identifying details about your book--e.g., an ISBN, author’s name, or part of the title--and a tag, and lo! the LOC or Amazon catalogs fill in the rest. Click on the appropriate link, and you now have an entry in your very own library catalog. If necessary, you can enter all the information by hand. Moreover, you can generate a printable version of your catalog, search other users’ libraries, and link to external URLs.
It’s a nifty idea. Right now, there are still some glitches: it only “recognizes” editions in LOC or Amazon, which means that the 2000 first ed. of a book only available in a 2005 printing may be nowhere to be seen; the site currently leans towards US editions, although you can access Amazon’s international catalogs (this will change once Tim, the site owner, incorporates the British Library catalog); and, as other users have noted in my own comments section, multivolume editions get inconsistent treatment. Nevertheless, the site is already well worth using.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
The author and academic John Waller claims in a new book that the story was inspired by a London-born child called Robert Blincoe, who at the turn of the 19th century spent four grim years in the workhouse before he was packed off to a cotton mill - with more abuse, regular beatings and hours of back-breaking work.
Continue reading "Evidence"
In The Real Oliver Twist, to be published next month, Dr Waller will suggest that Dickens was likely to have read Blincoe’s memoir and that there are strong parallels between the two stories.
Saturday, July 30, 2005
Dr. Crazy suggests that what separates blogging from academic writing is, in part, the reader’s desire:
Continue reading "Prosaic"
Because there is that immediate response, and you know that the response has nothing to do with academic hierarchies but rather with the fact that people are interested enough to read, not because they must read your blog for work but because they feel like reading it - whether because it makes them laugh, makes them think, or makes them feel whatever.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
After reading PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson, I thought: well, these books sound remarkably familiar--in fact, I’ve got more of them than you can shake the proverbial stick at, except that they happen to have been written in the nineteenth century and not our own. I then toddled over to Douglas Kennedy’s original article in the Guardian, which prompted another thought: wait a moment, something’s not right here. Specifically, this:Continue reading "Religious Publishing"
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Literature and Religion in Victorian Studies
[Note: the main text is a brief and, to be honest, disjointed sketch for a longer, but still brief, piece on the return of religion to Victorian studies. Comments, questions, corrections, etc., will all be welcomed and acknowledged in the finished essay.]
Just to prove that everything old can be new again, religion and literature has become the next “in” thing in Victorian studies. The rise of the new HolyTrinity (gender, race, and class) often left religion shivering out in a blizzard somewhere; when Sandra Gilbert and Susan M. Gubar took on Jane Eyre in the Madwoman in the Attic, for example, they allied themselves with the novel’s most extreme Victorian critics and called it “‘irreligious.’”* In other words, “religion” was somehow wrapped up in repressive Victorian attitudes, and could hardly be reconciled with apparently liberal or even radical positions—despite any evidence to the contrary. (Similarly, critics have sometimes had a hard time dealing with figures like Eliza Lynn Linton, a religious radical with resolutely conservative positions on most social issues.) Beginning in the 1990s, though, scholars began to think about religion as an organic part of Victorian culture, one flexible enough to accommodate any number of aesthetic, political, and intellectual positions. Whereas G&G had seen religion as part and parcel of a kind of “clothes philosophy,” as it were, more recent scholars have insisted on tracing its importance for all aspects of Victorian thought.
The new religion & literature differs in many respects from the old—indeed, from the Victorian version. Victorian critics, after all, were accustomed as a matter of course to examining the religious elements in their literature, and to thinking about what literature (including literary aesthetics) might mean for their religion. This is not to say that Victorian critics were always out hunting for Religious Correctness. The popular clergyman-cum-critic, Stopford Brooke, distinguished between a poet’s theology in “ordinary life” and his theology in poetry; while in the former, they were “subject to the same influences as other men, and if religious, held a distinct creed or conformed to a special sect,” in the latter, “[t]heir theology was not produced as a matter of intellectual co-ordination of truths, but as a matter of truths which were true because they were felt; and the fact is, that in this realm of emotion where prejudice dies, the thoughts and feelings of their poetry on the subject of God and Man are wholly different from those expressed in their everyday life.”** For Brooke, poetry offers something close to a truly universal expression of Christian faith, one set free from sectarian conflict by the imagination’s idiosyncratic workings. (Since this approach also allows Brooke to read an atheist like Shelley as a Christian poet at heart, modern readers may feel some skepticism about this tactic.) Brooke, in other words, is not at all a historicist; he seeks an expression of religious belief unique to poetry.
In the first half of the twentieth century, studies of religion and literature tended towards the encyclopedic catalogue, with far more emphasis on minor authors and taxonomies of doctrinal positions. It’s worth remembering that the first wave of work on non-canonical authors arrived roughly in tandem with the Germanic model of the doctorate: scholars sought to demonstrate mastery of a particular literary-historical “slice.” (For this reason, there’s a lot of scholarship from this period that remains useful today—e.g., J. M. S. Tompkins on popular fiction or B. G. MacCarthy on early women novelists.) Moreover, academics themselves were far more likely to be practicing Christians than they are now. Studies of Victorian religion and literature from this period tend to exclude historical context beyond theology; the results can feel fairly close to Lovejoy’s history of ideas. Not surprisingly, however, the 1960s and later saw a growing interest in what J. Hillis Miller termed “the disappearance of God.” And, after a time, religion & lit itself disappeared from Victorian studies.
Its return in the 1990s came with new strengths and new glitches. Many scholars interested in the subject have had little or no religious upbringing (or, at least, no upbringing in the faith tradition they’re studying). While this has at least one advantage—namely, non-sectarian scholarship—it also means that academics fail to grasp important problems or, conversely, see problems where no Victorian found them. Not surprisingly, some recent books have fallen badly afoul of historians of religion. More positively, as I said above, the recent scholarship usually tries to integrate religion into what David Newsome calls “the Victorian world picture,” the better to show that apparently contradictory positions (a Calvinist feminist?) might have their own internal logics.
What has motivated this return of the religious (semi-)repressed? At least three things are at work: 1) The rise of various fundamentalisms has led scholars to revisit earlier periods characterized by religious controversy. 2) In the logic of the academic market, fields left fallow are tilled, once again, when other areas become overworked. 3) Victorian literature is so chock-a-block with religious references that most scholars cannot simply ignore them.
Below the fold, I’ve provided a beginning bibliography for those interested in Victorian literature and religion. The bibliography covers only books devoted specifically to that subject—no history of theology, for example, which would take up an entire weblog—and emphasizes surveys over books on individual authors. I’ve tried to provide a mix of still-useful older works and more recent material.
*--Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 369.
**--Stopford Brooke, Theology in the English Poets. Cowper—Coleridge—Wordsworth and Burns, 6th ed. (1880; New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1970), 2-3.