About Rohan Maitzen
Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her main teaching and research interests are the Victorian novel, gender and historiography, and ethical criticism. Her academic career is mostly an excuse to keep rereading Middlemarch.
Posts by Rohan Maitzen
Monday, June 09, 2008
Summer Reading Project: Adam Bede
Adam Bede was George Eliot’s first full-length novel. It was published pseudonymously in 1859.
As many people as are interested will read Adam Bede. We can start with the instalment plan proposed below, which begins with about 50-60 pages a week and builds up a bit as things in the novel get more exciting. The idea is to complete the specified chapters by the date given. If it’s too fast or too slow, we can change it. Each week a simple message will be posted here at The Valve inviting discussion of the reading so far. Everyone is welcome to contribute. People who have their own blogs can post there and provide excerpts and/or links over here if they want. If this approach proves too open-ended and those involved would like more structure (e.g. posts to respond to, or questions to initiate discussion), we can consider how best to do that. Initially, though, let’s just see what people want to talk about. Lurkers especially welcome! Blogging is not meant to be a spectator sport.
By the given date, we’ll aim to have read at least the chapters specified.
June 17 Book 1 Chapters 1-5
June 24 Book I Chapters 6-11
July 1 Book I Chapters 12-16
July 8 Book II (Chapters 17-21)
July 15 Book III (Chapters 22-26)
July 22 Book IV (Chapters 27-35)
July 29 Book V (Chapters 36-48)
August 5 Book VI and Epilogue
August 12 General Discussion
Some related links are provided below the fold.
Thursday, June 05, 2008
Summer Book Club?
In the comments to Adam’s recent post about A Portrait of a Lady, Rich remarked, “After our long discussion of evaluative criticism, it’s good to see some that focuses on what works and what doesn’t.” I agreed, and I wondered if there was any appetite to engage collectively in something similar--that is, to pick a literary text and read it together (evaluatively or otherwise). A lot of the discussion here is meta-critical and professional; I’m curious what would happen if we tried a group read of a primary text. Some time ago, Amardeep had mentioned to me his interest in doing something along these lines, perhaps of a lesser-known 19th-century novel. Adam wonders about some other James novels. I seem also to recall some people here proposing a Sebald event. Any of these ideas is appealing to me, but if people have other proposals, that’s good too. Any interest? Any suggestions? We could take Marc Bousquet up on his “fighting words“ and read Green Grass, Running Water, if others besides me haven’t read it and are intrigued by his high praise…
Sunday, June 01, 2008
More on Evaluative Criticism
Those who followed the discussion sparked by Bill Benzon’s recent post on David Bordwell, much of which focused on the role of evaluation in criticism, may be interested in Ronan McDonald’s recent contributions to Nigel Beale’s blog Nota Bene Books. McDonald is the author of The Death of the Critic, one of the central claims of which is that “If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative” (149). This is the book at the center of the recent Salon piece on the death of criticism, also noted by Bill here (and by me here). McDonald sent some responses to Nigel’s review of his book, and Nigel offered to post some of the questions I had raised in my own earlier discussion of the book as well. McDonald has since posted a response to those. (I think the very possibility of these direct exchanges exemplifies the immediacy and energy blogging can bring to criticism.)Continue reading "More on Evaluative Criticism"
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Edward Dowden Reads George Eliot
I’ve realized that since I was invited to guest post here at The Valve, I’ve been trying hard to think of posts I could make that seem like Valve material, rather than just posting things at The Valve that interest me. In doing so, perhaps I was rather missing the point of that invitation. So here are some excerpts from (and then a few remarks on) something I was working on today and appreciating very much--an 1872 review essay on George Eliot by Edward Dowden, who was Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin.
When we have passed in review the works of that great writer who calls herself George Eliot, and given for a time our use of sight to her portraitures of men and women, what form, as we move away, persists on the field of vision, and remains the chief centre of interest for the imagination? The form not of Tito, or Maggie, or Dinah, or Silas, but of one who, if not the real George Eliot, is that “second self” who writes her books, and lives and speaks through them. Such a second self of an author is perhaps more substantial than any mere human personality; encumbered with the accidents of flesh and blood and daily living. It stands at some distance from the primary self, and differs considerably from its fellow. It presents its person to us with fewer reserves; it is independent of local and temporary motives of speech or of silence; it knows no man after the flesh; it is more than an individual; it utters secrets, but secrets which all men of all ages are to catch; while, behind it, lurks well pleased the veritable historical self secure from impertinent observation and criticism. With this second self of George Eliot it is, not with the actual historical person, that we have to do. And when, having closed her books, we gaze outward with the mind’s eye, the spectacle we see is that most impressive spectacle of a great nature, which has suffered and has now attained, which was perplexed and has grasped the clue--standing before us not without tokens on lip and brow of the strife and the suffering, but resolute, and henceforth possessed of something which makes self-mastery possible. The strife is not ended, the pain may still be resurgent; but we perceive on which side victory must lie.
Continue reading "Edward Dowden Reads George Eliot"
Monday, April 28, 2008
ALSC & The Valve
Does anyone with a longer history at The Valve (or anyone else, of course) have any comments on this piece from Inside Higher Ed on the current state of the ALSC--and of The Valve?
Exactly why the group has struggled is a matter of debate. For some of its founders and leaders, the problem lies in the fact that the association has largely abandoned one of its two original missions, continuing to serve as a forum for genuine literary criticism but generally ceasing to engage in the culture wars as it had early on, to “work for change in the profession, and to contest the influence of the destructive forces that had brought it to this low state,” as John Ellis, the group’s founding secretary/treasurer and a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said in a letter last year to the association’s then-president, Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
Ellis and other critics saw signs of the triumph of what he called “quietists” over “activists” in many trends within the association: conference programs featuring sessions on “eco-feminism” and “A Case for Green Cultural Studies,” a one-sidedness in the association’s main journal, Literary Imagination, and the “mainstream” approach of the ALSC-sponsored Web site, the Valve, among other things.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Literary Criticism in/and the Public Sphere
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman)
It is a commonplace of the history of literary criticism that the character of criticism changed when and because criticism entered the academy and became professionalized, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century (and ever after). The nature and consequences of this change have been examined and re-examined often over the years, in books such as John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society (1992), Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars (1991), Christopher Knight’s Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader (2003), or the essay collection Grub Street and the Ivory Tower: Literary Journalism and Literary Scholarship from Fielding to the Internet (1998)--to name just a few.
Brian McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books I’ve read on this topic. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments"--not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform” (11). The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs (e.g. 146); the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. As he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of their effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field” (89):
Continue reading "Literary Criticism in/and the Public Sphere"
For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline--housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition--not in English literature--justifies the existence of the English department. (92)
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Middlemarch in the 21st Century?
(cross-posted to Novel Readings)
I’ve been going through a book of essays called Middlemarch in the 21st Century. It’s an interesting enough collection, with contributions by a lot of the big names in current George Eliot scholarship. It is also at least as much about criticism in the 21st century as about Middlemarch. Of course, it is self-consciously so (in these metacritical days, how could it not be?); the editor is intelligently expressive on the intevitable interplay between text and (our) context:
The essays in this volume attach Middlemarch to the twenty-first century by way of their aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns, but each reading also dwells within the confines of the pages of the novel and its communities. We move constantly between the early and later nineteenth century and to the start of the twenty-first century, respecting the differences without allowing them to become obstacles in our way. (4)
That’s all fine, and so are the essays I’ve read, though to be sure I find some of them more engaging than others. What I’ve been thinking as I read, though, is that none of them really presents a version of Middlemarch for the 21st century: that is, none of them addresses ways Middlemarch (or, for that matter, any other past literary work) might have special relevance in the 21st century beyond those interpretive contexts selected by the contributors--none of which contexts, in turn, seems pointedly or necessarily fixed in the 21st century (except by accident of critical history, e.g. “this year, we’re doing materiality,” or “Lacanian readings are so 1990s”). I think it’s accurate to say that typically we take our “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” to our texts and see how they answer back. Is there a way to “attach” them to our century starting, as it were, from the other direction? How might Middlemarch, for instance, “read” the 21st century? What “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” might it bring to us? What would such a criticism look like? What (or who) would it be for?
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Aspects of Wood’s How Fiction Works
Cross-posted from Novel Readings. Thank you to the regular Valve folks for the invitation to do some guest posting!
The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.