Sunday, 15 April 2007

The Novel of Purpose, By Way of Introduction (x-posted from the Valve, which is currently hosting an event on Claybaugh's excellent book) 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 them? 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.)

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