Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform


Massacre of the Conestogas. Illustrated with eight fine engravings. Lancaster: G. Hills, 1841. James Wimer. Digital image from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and teaching platform devoted to Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war.  The “Paxton” in Digital Paxton refers to a little-known massacre in colonial Pennsylvania that unfolded in December 1763, when a mob of settlers from Paxtang Township murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County.  A month later, hundreds of “Paxton Boys” marched toward Philadelphia to menace refugee Indians who sought the protection of the Pennsylvania government.  While Benjamin Franklin halted the march just outside of Philadelphia in Germantown, supporters of the Paxton Boys and their critics spent the next year battling in print.  The pamphlet war that followed in 1764 was not so different from the Twitter wars of today.  Pamphleteers waged battle using pseudonyms, slandering opponents as failed elites and racial traitors.  At stake was much more than the conduct of the Paxton men.  Pamphleteers staked claims about colonization, peace and war, race and ethnicity, masculinity and civility, and religious association in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.

To support interdisciplinary study of this formative print debate, Digital Paxton makes freely available more than 2,500 pages of print-quality scans from eighteen different archives, research libraries, and cultural heritage institutions; contextualizes materials with twelve essays from leading historians and literary scholars; and scaffolds the collection with six lessons from secondary and post-secondary educators.

Playing Walpole’s Adeliza

Chelsea Phillips playing Adeliza and Georgina Lock playing the Countess of Narbonne in Walpole’s play The Mysterious Mother. May 2, 2018.

Being involved in a workshop staging of Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother was both a joy and a wonderful provocation to think deeply about eighteenth-century theatrical texts and their creative and pedagogical potential today. One great strength of the project was the open collaboration between the Lewis Walpole Library and scholars, theatre professionals, students, and educators from two continents. This rich population entered fully into the rigor and fun of the project as we discovered and worked to clarify the story (using David Worrall’s wonderful edited version) in a very short amount of time–a restriction that pushed us to work with the text’s style rather than to question it, circumventing a challenge I think many would anticipate with such a project. We were rewarded with an audience that enthusiastically and wholeheartedly entered into the performance (helped in large measure by the phenomenally atmospheric projections and soundscapes) in ways that both validated our own sense of the story and surprised in their ability to transition swiftly between laughter and gravity. In short, the experience of staging the play enabled us to ask better questions of Walpole’s text and eighteenth-century performance, and to appreciate the capacity of audiences today to revel in both; I hope it is only the beginning.

The Mysterious Mother: Plot Summary

This plot summary of The Mysterious Mother attempts to preserve the flow of information as it is revealed to the viewer. The gothic tragedy opens as Edmund, Count of Narbonne, returns to his ancestral home from the crusades with his friend and fellow soldier Florian. Edmund was banished by his mother, presumably because he arranged to sleep with a lady’s maid, Beatrice, the night after his father’s death. Edmund has had no contact with his mother for sixteen years, though she has sent him money from the estate she has inherited (a breach of patrilineal protocol motivated by her late husband in his love for her). Edmund assumes that she is being manipulated by the priest of the adjacent abbey, Father Benedict, and his protégé Father Martin, but on his return, he finds her defiant, refusing to confess and yet clearly tormented. She is convinced she has hallucinated her husband’s ghost when she first sees him. Edmund, stunned by his mother’s majestic demeanor in the midst of her distress, nonetheless hopes for a reconciliation through his newfound love for her young ward, Adeliza. The Countess misunderstands the proposed union, thinking that Florian loves Adeliza. Father Benedict begins to connect the dots of her guilt, seizes the moment for his vengeful triumph over the Countess, and hastily marries the unwitting Adeliza to Edmund who, when they come to seek the Countess’s blessing, instead drive her to the horrified confession that Benedict has been trying to extract for years: that her sexual longing for her husband, who unexpectedly died before he could return to her bed, drove her to disguise herself as Beatrice, the maid her son Edmund was to sleep with that night, and put herself in his bed. Edmund is unaware of the bedtrick, but the Countess knowingly has sex with her son. They conceive Adeliza and launch a lifetime of alienation and guilt. When the secret finally explodes in the revelation of a now-double incest plot, the Countess commits suicide with a dagger. Edmund, shattered, vows to return to the wars while Adeliza retreats to a convent.

The Mysterious Mother Mini-Conference: Session I

Session I of The Mysterious Monther mini-conference on May 3, 2018, held at the Yale Center for British Art, was titled “Reading The Mysterious Mother” and was chaired by Jill Campbell, Professor of English, Yale University.  Session I can be viewed in its entirety below.  The session featured the following papers:

  • Dale Townshend, Professor of Gothic Literature, Manchester University.  “The Mystery of The Mysterious Mother: Textual Lives and Afterlives”
  • Matthew Reeve, Associate Professor, Art History, Queens University.  “The Mysterious Mother and Crypto-Catholicism in the Circle of Horace Walpole”
  • Nicole Garret, Lecturer, Department of English, SUNY Stony Brook.  “Mis-reading in The Mysterious Mother
  • Cheryl Nixon, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Boston.  “The Mysterious Orphan: Dramatizing the Betrayal of the Child”
  • Nicole Wright, Assistant Professor of English, University of Colorado, Boulder.  “‘Kindest Laws’: Intimate Ajudication in The Mysterious Mother

The Mysterious Mother Mini-Conference: Session II

Session II of The Mysterious Monther mini-conference on May 3, 2018, held at the Yale Center for British Art, was titled “Staging The Mysterious Mother” and was chaired by Misty Anderson, James R. Cox Professor of English at the University of Tennessee.  Session II can be viewed in its entirety below.  The session featured the following papers:

  • Marcie Frank, Professor of English, Concordia University.  “Wilful Walpole: Performing Publication and The Mysterious Mother
  • Jean Marsden, Professor of English, University of Connecticut.  “Family Dramas: The Mysterious Mother and the Eighteenth-Century Incest Play”
  • Al Coppola, Associate Professor of English, John Jay College, CUNY.  “Spectacles of Science and Superstition”
  • Judith Hawley, Professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.  “‘the beautiful negilence of a gentleman’: Horace Walpole and Amateur Theatricals
  • David Worrall, Professor Emeritus, Nottingham Trent University.  “‘I beg you would keep it under lock and key’: The Mystery of the 1821 Mysterious Mother Performances”

“Our Habitation Becomes a Paradise”: Dreaming about Health in the Anthropocene

Before the species-ending plague, the characters in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826) dream of a world without disease.  Early in the first volume, Adrian—only son of England’s final reigning monarch—argues that, here at the end of the twenty-first century, “the choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise.  For the will of man is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease and wiping away the tears of agony” (76) [1].  Others agree:  not only has smallpox been eradicated, but the narrator also records, many believe, that in the near future of their English republic, “the state of poverty was to be abolished” and all “disease was to be banished” (106) [2].

The final volume of Shelley’s novel proves these characters wrong, as death comes for all members of the human species save one.  Although the novel belabors the effects of the plague (when I taught the novel a few semesters ago, one of my students described it as a never-ending set of death scenes), the plague’s origin and means of transmission remain mysterious.  “It was called an epidemic,” Verney writes, “but the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased” (231).  An “invincible monster” (221), the plague appears alternately in the figure of a woman—“Queen of the world” (346)and as the word “plague” itself [3].  Verney contends that the plague is miasmatic rather than contagious, caught when one breathes air “empoisoned” (233) by rotting animal and vegetable matter in heat, rather than by physical contact with contagious bodies—infected breath or sweat, or even goods previously handled by a person with the plague.  Importantly, as a miasmatic disease, Verney argues that there is no need for England to establish quarantine, or to turn away the sick.  However, literary critics have been skeptical about Verney’s own explanations, not least because his admonitions to care for the sick are belied by his own racist acts of self-protection, as when, rushing back to his family in Windsor, he rejects the “convulsive clasp” of a “negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease” (336).  It is from this encounter that Verney himself appears to catch the disease and then becomes immune to its power [4].

Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print

While my own recent publication, Reading Contagion (2018), postulates that The Last Man’s plague might appear so very inexplicable because it revives now obsolete beliefs about the hazards of reading—the various contagions eighteenth-century authors speculate might be spread by the form and contents of printed texts—I’m more interested here in the novel’s rebuke of fantasies about a world without disease.  In our own moment, this rebuke resonates.  Today, epidemiologists and public health experts warn about the potential for the vast expansion or virulent return of contagious diseases as one of the catastrophic results of anthropogenic climate change.  In a rapidly warming world, researchers caution that localized diseases such as Zika could spread much more widely if disease-carriers like mosquitos find newly warm habitats, or that older pathogens frozen in ice might be released as a result of continued drilling, mining, or melting of permafrost in formerly frozen regions like Siberia [5].  This contemporary concern prompts the question:  could Mary Shelley’s novel—which imagines the end of humanity one hundred years in our own future and depicts natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes, alongside an unstoppable plague—be an early warning about the Anthropocene? [6]

I think the answer is rather obviously yes, but indirectly and problematically so.  For Shelley’s novel, written in 1826, seems to have its own contemporaneous target, one that we can see in her pointed refusal of the idea that in the future “the state of poverty was to be abolished” and “disease was to be banished.”  In England during the 1820s, these are the dreams of a newly formed public health movement—led in part by Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861), physician at the London Fever Hospital, and the future ally of sanitation reformer Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890)—both of whom altered longstanding theories of disease.  In a series of articles published in the Westminster Review in 1825, Smith argued stridently that—save smallpox—all diseases are miasmatic, the product of climatic conditions in particular places.  For Smith, miasmatic (or what he terms “epidemic”) diseases “prevail most in certain countries, in certain districts, in certain towns, and in certain parts of the same town” [7].

“No. 7, PHEASANT COURT, GRAY’S INN LANE – Second-Floor, Front Room” (1850) by National Philanthropic Association (Depicting the Physical Conditions said to Generate Disease)

Smith contends that these locations are dispersed across the earth but share the same features:  spaces that “are the most low and damp, the worst built and the least sheltered” (144).  These locations are dirty, crowded, moist, and unventilated, and as Smith writes, “inhabited by persons who can least afford to pay” (144).  When heated, these spaces will putrefy, generating epidemic disease.  For Smith this is wholly distinct from contagion, which is a “specific animal poison” (134–35).  Contagion is a “palpable” (135) or “morbid matter” (140) secreted by the human body and spread solely by person-to-person contact; epidemic disease is caused by “a certain condition of the air” (135), when the air becomes “charged with noxious exhalations arising from the putrefaction of animal and vegetable matter” (142).  This “corrupted atmosphere” (151) is for Smith not itself contagious, but instead local and seasonal.

“Fumigating streets with tar in Exeter” (1849) by Thomas Shapter (Depicting an Attempt to Purge Miasmatic Air)

In these articles, Smith revises, by simplification, those complicated causal networks that had been inherent to theories of disease during the eighteenth century.  In that earlier period, British physicians postulated that some diseases begin when the air is polluted by the presence of rotting animal or vegetable matter (most likely to occur in hot, moist climates), while others (such as smallpox) originate instead as a specific contagion—infectious matter spread by direct contact with infected bodily fluids, breath, air, or even porous objects (termed “fomites”).  But even this distinction between types of diseases remained somewhat fuzzy, as physicians also argued that diseases can transform from miasma to contagion.  In the case of the plague, or certain kinds of fevers, physicians argued that even if the disease begins as miasma, it can transform:  when enough infected bodies breathe together, that diseased breath saturates and transforms the air, rendering it contagious and capable of spreading over vast distances [8].  Smith’s theories eradicate these complicated causal networks, which locate infectious agency in the interactions among humans and their surrounding worlds—interactions capable of transforming both a disease and its means of transmission.

Title Pages of Richard Mead’s “Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion” (1720) and William Cullen’s “Practice of Physic” (1777)

Smith’s writings for the Westminster Review, as well as his later Treatise on Fever (1830), were successful in shifting the beliefs of public health advocates, even if other medical professionals remained unconvinced.  Absolute distinctions between contagious and miasmatic diseases and sanitation as a wholesale cure for all diseases were taken up as doctrine by public health reformers, led by Chadwick [9].  As historians and literary scholars including Margaret Pelling, Christopher Hamlin, Mark Harrison, Pamela Gilbert, and Rajani Sudan have emphasized, this shift bolsters an already hardening ideology of native English superiority—of national health—that locates disease solely in improvable locations, usually urban or tropical ones [10].  As these scholars also note, public health’s winnowing of the causes of disease to the physical qualities of particular locations works to minimize concurrent or contributing social and economic factors.  Further, cures for diseases could be likewise simplified and rendered politically inoffensive.  Because if miasmatic diseases are caused by stagnant air and water, cures could be found in physical acts of cleansing or sanitation—by removing dirt, constructing proper drains to void stagnant water, establishing proper ventilation, or burning away the bad air.  The bodies of those persons infected could be similarly cured by being moved to fever hospitals, where they could be treated in pure air.

Dreaming of perfecting human health in Shelley’s moment, then, operates via a simplified causality that erases the agential power of mobile and contingent interactions among collective bodies, air, goods, etc.  And, so, one way to read The Last Man is as a critique of that kind of simplification, accomplished when Shelley raises a plague that will not be confined to miasma or cured by sanitation.  As such, Verney is proven wrong when he asserts that the plague is generated and spread not by bodies or objects, but only by location, which can be avoided:  “as for instance, a typhus fever has been brought by ships to one sea-port town; yet the very people who brought it there, were incapable of communicating it in a town more fortunately situated” (231).  And thus to get back to the question of the Anthropocene, Shelley’s novel can be read as critiquing exactly the kind of simplified causal thinking—which sees no agency in interaction itself—that is so debilitating when attempting to comprehend anthropogenic climate change today.  For to comprehend climate change we have to understand the importance of both interactions and secondary effects, which can themselves catalyze further catastrophes:  for example, that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prevent heat from escaping, and that warming causes greater ocean evaporation, and that evaporation causes even greater warming because that vapor absorbs heat and then stays in the atmosphere, and that ever-increasing warming then opens novel pathways for disease vectors, and so on.

“Modern Rome, Campo Vaccino” (1839) by J. M. W. Turner

But what makes The Last Man so very difficult is that, even as it critiques one kind of thinking, it also proffers its own simplification in place of Verney’s mistakes:  a plague that only infects humans.  I think this is crucial.  For what The Last Man can imagine is the particular human hubris of thinking that disease possesses one sole cause—location, which can be improved upon by human action:  “let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise.”  What the novel cannot imagine, though, is our own vast underestimation of our power to do harm to—indeed, to destroy—every element of the non-human world in our interactions with that world.  For, as the drastic destruction of insects in the rain forests of Central America or the potential extinction of clouds shows, “the choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes” . . . [11]


[1] Mary Shelley, The Last Man. Ed. Morton D. Paley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[2] During the second volume, Verney asserts, “the plague was not what is commonly called contagious, like the scarlet fever, or extinct small-pox” (231).

[3] The novel’s preoccupation with the word plague—in quotations or italicized, as when Verney reports “the man to whom I spoke, uttered the word ‘plague,’ and fell at my feet in convulsions; he also was infected” (400)—raises the possibility for many scholars that language or story is also responsible for plague’s transmission.

[4] After the dying man’s “breath, death-laden, entered my vitals” (337), Verney experiences fever followed after three days by a miraculous “restoration” (343), which, for Verney, “brought slow conviction that I had recovered from the plague” (343).  Verney’s achieved immunity to the disease suggests that, counter to his own arguments, the plague is contagious (like smallpox).  Given the novel’s own incoherence about disease, a wide body of productive literary scholarship has explored this question of whether the plague is miasmatic, contagious, or some combination of the two, and why those distinctions might matter.  For just some of this incisive work, see Anne Mellor, “Introduction,” The Last Man, edited by Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1993), vii-xxiv; Kari E. Lokke, “The Last Man,The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003), 116-134; Anne McWhir, “Mary Shelley’s Anti-Contagionism:  The Last Man as ‘Fatal Narrative,’” Mosaic:  A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35. 2 (June 2002):  23-38; Peter Melville, “The Problem of Immunity in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” SEL 47. 4 (Autumn 2007):  825-46; and Siobhan Carroll, “Mary Shelley’s Global Atmosphere,” European Romantic Review 25.1 (February 2014):  3-17.  Most recently, Melissa Bailes has rethought these questions by arguing that Shelley’s novel draws upon the work of George Cuvier to represent individual deaths as themselves apocalyptic (“The Psychologization of Catastrophe in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” ELH 82.2 [2015]:  671-699).

[5] See, for example, Greg Mercer, “The Link Between Zika and Climate Change” The Atlantic, February 24, 2016, as well as Boris A. Ravich and Mariana A. Podolnaya, “Thawing of Permafrost May Disturb Historic Cattle Burial Grounds in East Siberia.”  Global Health Action 4.1 (2011):  1-6.

[6] I am deeply grateful for Kent Linthicum for first suggesting that I think about this question, and for providing important insights from his own work about The Last Man’s many natural disasters.  For recent scholarship indicting the novel’s politics of sustainability, see Lauren Cameron, “Questioning Agency:  Dehumanizing Sustainability in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” in Romantic Sustainability:  Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830, edited by Ben Robertson (Lanham MD:  Lexington Books, 2016):  261-73.

[7] [Thomas Southwood Smith], “Contagion and Sanitary Laws.”  Westminster Review 3 (January-April 1825):  37-67, 144.

[8] Early eighteenth-century physician and contagion-expert Richard Mead argues that “when in an evil Disposition of This [corrupted air] they [infectious particles] meet with the subtle Parts, its Corruption has generated [people who are infected with disease], by uniting with them they become more active and powerful, and likewise more durable and lasting, so as to form an Infectious Matter capable of conveying the Mischief to a great Distance from the diseased Body, out of which it was produced” (A Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion, 6th edition [London:  Printed for Sam Buckley in Amen-Corner, and Ralph Smith at the Royal-Exchange, 1720], 12-13).  Later in the century prominent physician William Cullen writes of jail fevers:  “the effluvia constantly arising from the living human body, if long retained in the same place, without being diffused in the atmosphere, acquire a singular virulence; and, in that state, . . . become the cause of a fever which is highly contagious” (First Lines of the Practice of Physic [4th edition, Edinburgh:  Printed for C. Elliot, 1784], 1:81).

[9] As Margaret Pelling explains, while originally referring to quarantine measures (from the French cordon sanitaire), “sanitary” began to include “measures directed towards improvement in comfort and cleanliness” during the time of the first cholera epidemic (Cholera, Fever and English Medicine, 1825-1865 [Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1978], 30-31).  According to Pelling, the term “sanitary,” was first used by Charles McLean, in his arguments against quarantine in the Evils of Quarantine Laws (1824), a primary source for Smith’s articles.

[10] See Pelling, Cholera, Fever; Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick:  Britain, 1800-1854 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998); Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions:  Health, Race, Environment, and British Imperialism in India (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999) and Medicine in the Age of Commerce and Empire (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010); Pamela Gilbert, Cholera and the Nation:  Doctoring the Social Body in Victorian England (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2008); and Rajani Sudan, The Alchemy of Empire:  Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2016).  More recently, in Difference and Disease:  Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018), Suman Seth illuminates that it is roughly during this same period (the late eighteenth century) that medical writers themselves begin to distinguish absolutely diseases of temperate and tropical climates, what he terms a “race-medicine” that shares affinity with a “race-science” that is also arguing for absolute distinctions between an ever smaller number of races.

[11] See Damian Carrington, “Plummeting Insect Numbers Threaten the Collapse of Nature” The Guardian, February 10, 2019, and Natalie Wolchover, “A World Without Clouds” Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019.

The New Volcanoes of Industry

Over the past forty years or so, climate researchers have written of the “human volcano” when discussing air pollution and carbon emissions.  As early as the 1970s, industrialized nations were spewing so much soot and ash into the atmosphere that the effects imitated a volcanic eruption.  In the early twenty-first century, this phenomenon has intensified with the global increase in coal burning resulting in stratospheric pollution previously only seen from volcanic activity.  Here’s the connection scientists are making:

When major volcanic eruptions occur—such as Tambora in 1815, or Krakatoa in 1883, or Mount St. Helens in 1980, or Mount Pinatubo in 1991—huge clouds of sulphur and volcanic ash enter the atmosphere and stratosphere, traveling around the globe and causing air quality issues, crop failures, and global temperature changes.  But the eruption ends, and, while volcanoes can cause severe environmental damage, the most common eruptions affect Earth’s ecosystems for only few years.  However, unlike an actual volcano, the so-called “human volcano” continues to increase steadily over time.  There is no end to the eruption—industrialized nations continue to erupt, slowly and without pause.  So, while a volcanic eruption is more catastrophic and destructive in the short term, the human volcano can be more long-lasting, producing what climate scientists call “global warming.”  Humans, in other words, have become a geophysical force of nature akin to volcanoes.

Rob Wood’s depiction of the Tambora eruption in 1815

Humans’ ability to modify Earth’s ecosystems in this manner is a hallmark of the Anthropocene.  Literally meaning “The Age of Humans,” the Anthropocene is the proposed name for our current geological epoch, beginning when human activities started to have a noticeable impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.  Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen popularized the term in 2000, writing that the Anthropocene refers to “the present, human-dominated, geologic epoch, supplementing the Holocene,” and his writing has spurred nearly two decades of debate among scientists and humanities scholars, with most scholarship centered on defining the characteristics of the Anthropocene and in establishing its dates [1].  Crutzen initially proposed that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, citing James Watt’s patent of the steam engine in 1784 as a possible marker, while other scientists have since argued for the “Orbis spike” of 1610 or the “bomb spike” of 1964.  The later date has recently emerged as the frontrunner for the dating of the Anthropocene [2].

Photograph of industrial pollution in the twenty-first century

However, the human-volcano effect directs our attention back to the eighteenth century as marking the emergence of the Anthropocene.  This human volcano, it turns out, is not unique to our contemporary moment:  the practice of comparing human activity to volcanoes is part of a literary tradition that began in Britain in the eighteenth century.  Poets, painters, and scientists were fascinated by volcanoes, due in large part to the dual developments of geology and industrialization, as well as the high number of major eruptions during this period, most notably Vesuvius in 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, and 1794; Laki in 1783; and Tambora in 1815.  Eighteenth-century geologists argued that volcanoes played a vital role in the formation and evolution of Earth.  The violent eruptions of volcanoes and subsequent processes of erosion, decay, and rejuvenation not only imagined a geological time scale for the first time—that is, “deep time”—but also made volcanoes a major attraction for natural historians and tourists alike.  At the same time, a range of authors began using volcanic language and imagery in the earliest depictions of industrialization, which was quickly reshaping the landscape and geography of Britain.  This conflation of human and geological phenomena depicts humanity as a geological force in a new geological epoch.

One representative example of the many eighteenth-century poets that fused geological and industrial imagery is the relatively unknown priest and poet John Dalton, who marvels at England’s quickly-changing landscape in his 1755 Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven.  In the eighteenth century, Whitehaven was a major coal-mining town in northwestern England, and industrial tourism was common at this time—people were obsessed with new industrial technology.  In his humorous poem, Dalton depicts the ladies’ tour as a kind of epic-to-the-Underworld narrative, drawing on classical mythology and tropes, but he also supplies real scientific and cultural knowledge about volcanoes and industrialization through a series of extensive footnotes, which were written by his friend, Dr. William Brownrigg.  In the poem’s opening stanza, Dalton describes Whitehaven’s coal mines as volcanoes:

Welcome to light, advent’rous pair!
Thrice welcome to the balmy air
From sulphurous damps in caverns deep,*
Where subterranean thunders sleep,
Or, wak’d, with dire Aetnaean sound
Bellow the trembling mountain round,
Till to the frighted realms of day
Thro’ flaming mouths they force their way;
From bursting streams, and burning rocks,**
From nature’s fierce intestine shocks;
From the dark mansions of despair,
Welcome once more to light and air! [3]

Several words and images here reference volcanic eruptions:  “sulphuruous damps,” “subterranean thunders,” “Aetnaean sound” (reference to Mount Etna), “trembling mountain,” “flaming mouths,” “burning rocks.”  The sights, sounds, smells, and effects of the coal mines parallel those of volcanoes.  The footnotes are also quite suggestive.  In the first footnote, the author writes of the “dreadful explosions” in the mines, which are “very destructive,” “bursting out of the pits with great impetuosity, like the fiery eruptions from burning mountains” (pp. 1–2).  He here refers to natural coal-seam fires, which can burn for thousands of years, but which can also be started by human causes, such as accidents and explosions in mines.  In the second footnote, he explains that these unintended fires “burn for ages” (p. 2)—an exaggeration, of course, but one that implicitly links the long, slow progress of a geological age with the experience—and projection—of humans’ imagined geologic imprint.

These volcanic similes and metaphors continue throughout the poem.  Dalton references the “perpetual fire” of industry (l. 44), as well as the “hissing,” “moaning,” and “roaring” of the “fire-engines” and other modern inventions, all of which produce substances akin to volcanic lava:

But who in order can relate
What terrors still your steps await?
How issuing from the sulphurous coal
Thick Acherontic rivers roll?* (ll. 87–90)

Dalton depicts water pumped from the mines as a kind of hellish water, or lava, akin to the fiery water of Acheron in Hades.  In a footnote, he explains the pumping process in more detail, offering a vision of anthropogenic lava:  “The water that flows from the coal is collected into one stream, which run towards the fire-engines.  This water is yellow and turbid, from a mixture of ocher, and so very corrosive, that it quickly consumes iron” (p. 8).

Newcomen steam pump by Louis Figuer, 1868

Dalton’s Descriptive Poem indicates the trajectory of scientific poetry throughout the eighteenth century.  The structure of the poem, which alternates between poetry and extensive scientific footnotes, not only anticipates the style made famous by Erasmus Darwin nearly four decades later but also points toward a confluence of scientific and literary writing on volcanoes and industry.  Poets and geologists alike wrote extensively of volcanoes and industrialization, often at the same time.  For example, the first English translation of Italian geologist Francesco Serao’s Natural History of Mount Vesuvius was extracted and written about extensively in a 1747 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine and in subsequent issues throughout the 1750s and 1760s.  Focused mainly on the 1737 eruption of Vesuvius, this text exemplifies the kinds of descriptions typical in volcano writings, with an emphasis on fire, heat, smoke, clouds, thunder, earthquakes, and a transformation of the surrounding landscape.  Significantly, he frequently compares volcanic activity to human effects:  he repeatedly refers to underground volcanic fires as “furnaces”; compares volcanic vapors to those in coal mines; and writes, “The Noise of our Vesuvian Thunder was momentaneous, like the Discharge of a Cannon fir’d at Sea” [4].

Scientist and explorer Sir William Hamilton also focuses on volcanic-industrial connections in his popular and widely-read Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos (1773).  Like Serao’s text, Observations was extracted and reprinted frequently in literary magazines.  At one point, Hamilton compares the smoke and ash of Vesuvius to the fog of London:  “it was impossible to judge the situation of Vesuvius, on account of the smoak and ashes, which covered it entirely . . . the sun appearing as through a thick London fog” [5].  As we know now, London’s famous fog was mostly the result of suspended particulate matter:  soot, smoke, and dust caused from coal burning.  In 1825, Charles Lamb would call this “the ‘London particular,’ so manufactured by Thames, Coal Gas, Smoke, Steam, and Co” [6].  These kinds of scientific-industrial comparisons were widespread in scientific writings:  perhaps most famously, the geologist James Hutton presents Earth as a “machine” modeled on the steam engine in his Theory of Earth (1788).

Title page of Hamilton’s Observations

By the early nineteenth century, the volcanic-industrial tradition had become “common place” in British writing, as Lord Byron observes in Don Juan (1824) [7].  Scientists such as Humphry Davy, James Smithson, and Luke Howard began to argue explicitly that industrial emissions had atmospheric effects similar to those of volcanic eruptions.  In 1804 the editors of the Edinburgh Review expressed amazement that such a connection had “so long eluded observation” [8].  Howard, writing on London in 1812, referred to the chimneys of the city as a collective “volcano of a hundred thousand mouths” [9].  In 1820, the poet James Woodhouse wrote of the “new volcanoes” in Birmingham and Wolverhampton [10].  This literary trope of referring to the “new volcanoes” of industry continues throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In a 1902 issue of the Illustrated London News, the thousands of chimneys that reach into the sky above Britain’s capital are referred to as “London volcanoes,” and today, climate researchers continue to write of the “human volcano” [11].

Vesuvius Eruption in 1767, Plate 1, Observations

In the twenty-first century, humans have supplanted volcanoes as a major catalyst of climate change.  The last five years (2014–2018) were the hottest years on record globally, owing almost entirely to the human-volcano effect.  While this warming trend is recent, the connections among industrialization, volcanoes, and climate change are not.  These connections, which both signal and describe the Anthropocene, form a tradition in eighteenth-century British writing, pointing to 1750 as the dawn of the Anthropocene.


[1] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000), p. 17.

[2] For a concise yet comprehensive overview of these debates, see Jeffrey Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (Oakland:  University of California Press, 2016), esp. chapter two.  Also see Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519 (2015):  171–80.

[3] John Dalton, A Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven (London, 1755), ll. 1–12.

[4] Francesco Serao, The Natural History of Mount Vesuvius (London, 1743), p. 64.

[5] Sir William Hamilton, Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos (London, 1774), p. 31.

[6] J. C. Thompson, Bibliography of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb:  A Literary History (London: J.R. Tutin, 1908), p. 88.

[7] Lord Byron, Don Juan, 13.282.

[8] Quoted in G. M. Matthews, “A Volcano’s Voice in Shelley,” ELH 24, no. 3 (1957), p. 197.

[9] Luke Howard, The Climate of London (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 203.

[10] James Woodhouse, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus, in The Life and Poetical Works of James Woodhouse, ed. R. R. Woodhouse (London, 1896), p. 25.

[11] Illustrated London News (15 March 1902), p. 17.

Jane Austen Summer Program 2019

Jane Austen Summer Program 2019

The award-winning Jane Austen Summer Program is excited to announce its 2019 symposium, “Pride and Prejudice and Its Afterlives!” The seventh annual event will take place this June 20-23 in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Participants will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups each day, as well as join in a Regency-style ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, partake in an English tea, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference. The discussions will consider Pride and Prejudice in its historical context as well as its afterlives in fiction, film, and digital media. The Jane Austen Summer Program is designed to appeal to established scholars, high school teachers, graduate students, undergraduate students, and Austen fans—anyone with a passion for all things Austen is welcome and encouraged to attend! For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website

(Original post provided by Carlie Wetzel, Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student, Department of English and Comparative Literature, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Forster’s Synchronism and 18th-Century Studies

In the preface to The Rape of Clarissa, Terry Eagleton embraces, under the sign of Benjamin, a strategic presentism (though this is not his phrase) that understands the work of criticism to be a kind of textual recovery.  Literature long thought unreadable can, under the critic’s care, be revived for a new readership if we can only see how it speaks to the politics of the present moment.  This is what I take Eagleton to mean when, writing in 1982, he claims, “we may now once again be able to read Samuel Richardson.” [1]

Eagleton’s “we” who are newly able to read Richardson surely refers not to scholars of the eighteenth century—who had, of course, been reading Richardson all along—but to a more capacious, perhaps even a non-academic readership.  And “read” means something bigger, too.  Again, eighteenth-century scholars had been reading Clarissa, but not in a way that took its project seriously, not in a way that understood its urgency.  In bringing Clarissa back from the dead, Eagleton opposes his method to a conservative historicism:  “I entirely lack what would appear to be one of the chief credentials for discussing the eighteenth century,” he writes, “namely a nostalgic urge to return to it.” [2]

Eagleton can seem almost prophetic now:  he either divined correctly that the world was ready again for Clarissa or, along with Terry Castle and, not much later, Frances Ferguson (among others), he made it ready.  But I begin with him not because I see him as the first to release this salvo but because I want to suggest that there has long (perhaps always) been an eighteenth-century studies that has situated itself against a more conservative, historicist eighteenth-century studies.  This is perhaps why many of us were so thrilled to read the V21 Manifesto when it was published:  we greeted its writers less as provocateurs than as fellow-travelers.  I offer a capsule pre-history of strategic presentism not to suggest that it has run its course but to propose what I hope we might consider as a friendly competitor in the push against the kind of conservative nostalgia Eagleton names.  If, as the manifesto claims, “the variations of and alternatives to presentism as such have not yet been adequately described or theorized,” I hope to offer an early step toward that effort here.

Rather than (or perhaps alongside of) strategic presentism, I’ve been thinking lately about a model of synchronism (maybe even a naïve synchronism) that would allow for connections between moments of historical time without even the minimal historical apparatus that presentism requires.  In one of the early responses to the V21 Manifesto, David Kurnick urges us to revisit old formalisms before we craft new ones, and, in that spirit, I want to suggest that one valuable old formalist contribution to our present critical conversation is E. M. Forster’s curious synchronous thinking about the novel’s form. [3]  Here’s a brief passage from a part of Aspects of the Novel that no one really reads:

We are to envision the English novelists not as floating down that stream which bears all its sons away unless they are careful, but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British Museum reading-room—all writing their novels simultaneously. They do not, as they sit there, think, ‘I live under Queen Victoria, I under Anne, I carry on the tradition of Trollope, I am reacting against Aldous Huxley.’  [4]

Forster imagines the British Museum reading room as populated by the great authors of the English novel, paired at tables in a kind of formalist buddy system.  The pairings that Forster conjures with his thought experiment (Richardson and James, Dickens and Wells, Sterne and Woolf) may strike us as rather obvious, but the experiment itself is not.  Our understanding of novel theory has, perhaps since its inception, been inextricably linked to an historical account of the novel’s emergence and development, however contested the parameters and particulars of that history may be.  Consider the ubiquity of the pairing “the history and theory of the novel” in both our scholarship and teaching, or the subtitle of the most commonly assigned anthology in the subfield:  Michael McKeon’s The Theory of the Novel:  An Historical Approach.

While much new formalist work on novel theory has advocated either for new histories or for a strategic presentism that simply runs history in reverse, Forster offers a formalist literary history without the history.  Forster posits a view of the English novel as simultaneously generated—a flattening not of character but of time.  It subordinates temporality as such to the spatial, enabling, I think, what Anna Kornbluh has called, “enhanced attention to the worldmaking project of fictional space and to literary realism as the production of possible spaces rather than the document of existing places.” [5]  (Indeed, I suspect that Forster’s model might do this better than presentism).

In writing at a table alongside Forster, I’m not claiming to invent anything, but I do want to connect and elevate work as diverse as that of Susan Sontag (see “Notes on Camp”:  especially her use of lists that can commingle, for example, Walpole, Wilde, and “stag films seen without lust”), James Chandler, whose An Archeology of Sympathy pings from Frank Capra to Laurence Sterne to I. A. Richards, and Scott Black, whose writing on romance and anachronism takes up what he has called “a looser sense of history.”  The affordances of synchronism are, in brief:

1.)  it offers a less abashed formalism.

2.)  it opens up the potential for a kind of cross-period collaboration that is truly rare in our discipline.

3.)  it leverages so much of the work that we already do, in our classrooms especially, but also in the kind of irreverent, energetic (semi-)public writing that is flourishing at the moment, both in venues like The Hairpin (RIP), The Toast (RIP), and the LA Review of Books but also ABOPublic and The 18th-Century Common.  And this is perhaps especially true for our colleagues in the precariat, our graduate students and adjunct faculty, who are constantly being called to extend outside of narrow training, to bring their expertise to bear more broadly than ever.

In sum, I want to suggest that Forster’s synchronism offers a model for thinking about the novel without the silos of periodization, at a moment when we’ve largely embraced formalist methodology only up to the limits of established, field-based historical parameters.  It doesn’t encourage us to abandon the eighteenth century, but instead offers us an eighteenth century not just for the present, but for all time and all possible futures.


[1]  Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa:  Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson.  (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xii.

[2]  Eagleton, xiii-ix.


[4]  E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927).  (New York:  Harvest Books, 1955), 9.

[5] Anna Kornbluh, “Present Tense Futures of the Past,” in “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism,” Victorian Studies 59.1 (Autumn, 2016):  98-101.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.