Monthly Archives: October 2006

The Enlightenment and Universal Law

I just told my class a few weeks ago that the European Enlightenment was characterized by, among many other things, a healthy skepticism for dogmatism, a rejection of blind authority to traditional sources of power and knowledge, an openness to different ideas and opinions from the New World and beyond, and a driving curiosity to explore selfhood and subjectivity (seen best in the 18c novel, via Locke).

But just the other day we were reading Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” and I heard myself telling the same students that the poem is a representative Enlightenment text for its assertive appeals to Universal Truth and an unchanging “Nature” (human and otherwise) that parallels Newton’s “laws” of gravity and physics and the subsequent confidence in the culture at large that God’s ways could finally be explained as a function of Reason.

So which is it? Is Pope’s poem an Enlightenment text for its foundation in Unchanging Universal Truth, or is it a kind of anti-Enlightenment text for its completely trusting capitulation to an (albeit Reasonable) God and its refusal to acknowledge that different people might have different angles on Truth?

Marie Antoinette (the film)?

Well, it’s Friday night, and I thought maybe we all needed to think very seriously about whether we’ll ever watch Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, either in a theater (nope, not this year) or possibly with a rental (perhaps, if we can manage to stay up that late).

It all depends on whether splashy, glossy Hollywoody historical costume dramas set in our period really appeal to you as a know-it-all eighteenth century specialist.

On the one hand, maybe a movie like this means that what we study is really, really popular! It does have Spiderman’s girlfriend in it, after all. But maybe this kind of casting is the only way a mass audience could be induced to watch a movie like this.

Here’s the question: do you still get chills thinking about the time Madonna did “Vogue” at the Video Music Awards with a Versailles-theme, complete with male dancers in matching wigs and hot pants?

I enjoyed the Madonna version of Marie Antoinette, actually, but I’m not sure that Sofia Coppola has really thought this through, any more than Madonna did when she strapped on that wig and bustle.

This doesn’t give me much confidence either:

While some critics have compared Marie Antoinette with modern-day female icons ranging from Paris Hilton to Diana, Princess of Wales, Coppola denies any connection. “I’m not even going to comment on Paris,” she says. “As for Princess Diana, I wasn’t really thinking of her when I was making the film but in hindsight I can see a connection between her and Marie Antoinette; this young girl put into this royal family without a lot of freedom. I can definitely see similarities in that royal life but I wasn’t thinking specifically of her.”

But what do I know? Has anyone seen it? Or intends to see it? Maybe it’s fabulous, and I’m just too tired to watch a lavish historical costume drama starring Spiderman’s girlfriend.

Best wishes, and happy weekend,


Unteachable Books?

Yesterday’s exchanges with Laura about the Female Quixote made me think about the reasons for the FQ’s current popularity as a teaching-text, compared with the other novels of Lennox, which have a much lower profile. There are sometimes good reasons for these kinds of disciminations, but sometimes not: I sometimes wonder why, besides length, Burney’s Evelina seems to be taught more often at the undergrad level than a novel like Cecilia, which for my money is a more interesting and mature work. And I doubt that Tristram Shandy is taught much at all in undergrad classes nowadays, for a variety of reasons.

But I don’t think Laura would mind (would you Laura?) if I resumed a discussion we had a few ASECS ago about Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle. I remember telling Laura about how fascinating the Cadwallader Crabtree episodes were, but how hopeless it would be in any novel course. It’s a peculiarly unattractive, lengthy, episodic, violent and unstructured novel, even by Smollett’s low standards, though it does have its funny bits. And, indeed, I have happily written about Peregrine, without any expectation that I could use it in a course I could envision teaching.

So, let’s hear about your unteachable books. Do you have books that you’d study but never teach? Did you ever discover that one of your lifetime faves was a surprisingly hard sell to your stonefaced students?



Returning to the Female Quixote

I just taught the Female Quixote again, after our Richardsonian marathon, and I’ve learned just how teachable a novel it is, especially in the context of my Haywood to Austen domestic novel course. I had initially taught her very differently, as a kind of weak female echo of both Richardson and Fielding, and found myself wondering, along with the rest of the class, why I’d assigned her.

It was when I started thinking more specifically about the sub-genres constituting the novel, and seeing her as an important literary model for Austen, that the FQ became more interesting to me. When read alongside Burney, Radcliffe, Wollstonecraft, and a big chunk of Austen, including the juvenilia, the novel made much better sense to me as a part of literary history. And, really, there is a lightness to the comedy in her writing that I sometimes wish I could find in Burney or Smollett.

In the course of rereading and prepping the novel, though, I noticed two things I hadn’t really reflected on before.

The first was just how displaced this Gibraltar-born daughter of a Scots army officer had been in her earliest years: while still a child, she had followed her father to Fort New York, and ended up in London unprovided for, landing in a disagreeable marriage to another Scot, one Alexander Lennox. But the novels that reflected her American experience do not seem to have garnered anywhere near the attention of the FQ. All the exoticism of this novel resides in the fanciful stories that fill poor Arabella’s head.

The second thing I noted was how different this book’s take on sensibility was from Burney’s heroines, largely because Lennox satirizes and idealizes the sentimental female at the same time. The effect actually resembles Sterne’s toying with the sentimental in the Sentimental Journey, since we are left unsure how to credit the suffering that undoubtedly does take place in both books.

Initially, Lennox plays Arabella’s mourning purely for laughs, as when she imitates her Romance heroines’ all-too-eloquent speeches, which makes her matter-of-fact Uncle Charles think she is in a “delirium.”

But then Charles and his son, Glanville, go in to see her lying negligently on the bed, and this is what they find:

Her deep Mourning, and the black Gawse, which covered Part of her fair Face, was so advantageous to her Shape and Complexion, that Sir Charles, who had not seen her since she grew up, was struck with an extreme Surprize at her Beauty, while his Son was gazing on her so passionately, that he never thought of introducing his Father to her, who contemplated her with as much Admiration as his Son, though with less Passion (60).

What struck me this time round was how Clarissa-like this scene was, though in ways that Richardson never would have acknowledged: the heroine’s physical presence was enough to stupefy every man who gazes upon her, but the sexuality of the two men’s fascination with the sentimental, suffering heroine is clearly acknowledged by the omniscient narrator. What permits Lennox to do this is the novel’s Quixotic premise, in which the heroine never really understands what those around her are reacting to.

So can others think of similarly comic yet eroticized sensibility in other writings of the Long Eighteenth? What are your favorites?



Romanticism: A Period or a Sensibility?

As I finish my dissertation, I’ve been forced to think more about the way that I categorize the novels upon which I work. They are the radical novels of the 1790s to me–I haven’t been particularly anxious to group them in terms of a larger period or movement. However, I’ve been told twice recently that the novels I’m working on are (no ifs, ands, or buts, it seems) Romantic novels simply because they fall within a certain time frame that I am told is now widely considered the “Romantic period.”

I haven’t done tons of reading on Romanticism yet–a bit here and there, but no real depth–but this strikes me as strange on the one hand and really unhelpful on the other. I’ve always understood Romanticism as a set of characteristics of literary works. My primary objection to calling “my” novels Romantic novels is that it classifies them with novels that are so different that it makes the label practically worthless. What does grouping Mary Hays’ Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley together under the rubric of “the Romantic novel” tell you about what a Romantic novel is? What does it tell you about either of the novels? What does Romantic mean in this sense?

Obviously we do this kind of broad grouping all the time–what does it mean to call novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk eighteenth-century novels?–but such grouping under the term “Romantic” seems to me different. Does anyone else have thoughts about the “periodization” of Romanticism? Is this so widely accepted now that no one thinks twice about it?

Housekeeping #2

For those keeping score, here are the recent traffic statistics. Obviously, the collaborative reading generated a great deal of traffic. Click on the graphic to enlarge it.

The reading included posts by five of our contributors and responses by Professor McKeon. I have added links to these posts, in chronological order, in the sidebar for easy access. Everyone should feel free to continue contributing comments to these posts, which will remain “live” due to the sidebar links.

If anyone has any ideas for future group readings or for further development of the blog, please don’t hesitate to email.

The Difference that Geography Makes

Greetings, all. I’m blogging today from Shady Side, MD, visiting my folks this weekend. And no, the grading’s not done. That’s what the airplane ride is for, isn’t it?

Our recent exchanges about historical change and method have really brought home to me two assumptions that I’d like to explore a bit further:

1) that the contingent events that occur in our daily experience will turn up in our interpretation and teaching of the long eighteenth. The best recent example is the new salience of secrecy and scandal in the wake of the page scandals in D.C. Carrie Hintz talked about this dynamic in regards to all the Lewinskiana dating back to the Clinton era, but I think we can argue that this is a more general working assumption that turns up in a lot of our teaching, and now in scholarly blogs like this one. In other words, the historicity of the historian affects her perceptions of the past in substantial though contingent ways. Am I correct when I say that we take this for granted?

2) that we take the geographical difference between “center” and “periphery” as seriously in the present as we do in the past. The Edinburgh reader of the Man of Feeling has a different sense of it as a cultural and historical event than the London reader, because the book’s publication inserts itself into distinct histories. As one of my colleagues phrases it, London and Edinburgh exist in distinct geopolitical, and therefore geohistorical, locations, to say nothing of further-flung publics of metropolitan literary culture. Again, is it fair to say that we share this assumption?

Some time ago, I did a little teaching presentation at ASECS called “When did the Enlightenment Reach Texas? (please give dates),” and, of course, I was only partly joking about the question.

One of my first lessons in geohistorical location was the experience of teaching texts like Crusoe to students with stoutly maintained religious identities (mostly evangelical Protestant, but some Catholic). In my first semester in Houston, I was shocked to receive questions on topics like calvinism and predestination, which had been treated as fairly recondite matters by my East coast grad program. This means that even as we treat the Long Eighteenth as a body of material that we are attempting to “reproduce” mimetically from one generation to the next, that nonetheless this process of reproduction will play out quite differently in different places.

If the assumptions I’ve just outlined are correct, that means that the Long Eighteenth as it is known in Shady Side, MD (only a short drive from the pleasant little eighteenth-century houses and streets of Annapolis), will be different than the Long Eighteenth as it is talked and written about in Philadelphia, New York, or Santa Barbara, not to mention London, Manchester, and Dublin. It’s a dizzying prospect, and I’m not sure where it ends.

So how does your location (in every sense of the word) affect your sense of what you study and teach?