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.

Notes

[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 https://janeaustensummer.org.

(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.

Notes

[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.

[3]  http://v21collective.org/responses-to-the-v21-manifesto-2/#response2

[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.

Remembering the Unbearable Present: Colonial Biowarfare, Indigeneity, and the Challenge for Anthropocene Historiographies

“Anthropocene Word Cloud from Wikipedia.”  Notably, the words colonial, imperial, indigenous, violence, and their derivatives do not appear.

 

“It is hard for us to examine our connection with unbearable pasts with which we might reckon better, our implication in impossibly complex presents through which we might craft different modes of response, and our aspirations for different futures toward which we might shape different worlds-yet-to-come[.]” —Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times

Anthropocene:  A blanket term

Anglocene, Anthrobcene, Capitalocene, Cthulcene, Eurocene, Manthropocene, Misanthropocene, Neganthropocene, and Plantationocene:  this is the current slate of monikers for the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch with historical debates over its start-date as deeply entrenched as those over its name.  This ever-expanding catalogue of inspiring neologisms, however, suggests more than the schizoid nature of the Anthropocene and reveals more than simply an embryonic idea still in the process of being worked out, although its very existence is not unanimously acknowledged, as the surprise announcement of the Meghalayan Age by the International Union of Geological Sciences reveals [1].

The blur of proposed names for this new geological epoch is the symptom of a deeper unease that we have with the progenitur term “Anthropocene,” an unease that deepens with its disciplining, that is, in a Foucauldian vein, in the way this term is becoming sedimented and accepted as a disciplined body of knowledge [2].  Think, for instance, about the coalition of the Anthropocene Working Group, the task-force that determines the key parameters of this new epoch, a group that, as Oxford economist Kate Raworth shrewdly observes, is overwhelmingly made up of white, European men [3].  This raises the important question of who is the Anthropocene for?  Who speaks for it?  Who does it represent, and who does it erase?  The question we must ask is this:  In what ways is a certain structural violence, a colonial violence, smuggled in under the covers of this definition?

To think about this dark side of the Anthropocene requires attention to the erasure inherent in this definition of the anthropos (by its Greek roots, a white, universal, European subject).  Recent work by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, among others, helps to shed light on the ontopolitics of this new epoch, as they rightly identify colonial violence as an inherent factor within the process of humans becoming a dominant force on the earth.  Although Lewis and Maslin (2015) date this violence to the late fifteenth century in what they call the “New-Old World collision,” when Europeans arrived in the Americas, the long eighteenth century—the period that many consider to be the dawn of the Anthropocene, or at least the initialization of a new phase in its development [4]—continued to be a hotbed for settler violence twinned with destructive means of terraforming, particularly in North America.  In what follows, I offer one particular eighteenth-century event—the British military’s bio-weaponization of smallpox against North American Indigenous peoples—as a touchstone for thinking about this structural violence, an event that might also serve as a metaphor for some of the dangers we continue to face in our conceptualization of the Anthropocene today.  We can read this bio-weaponization forward into our own contemporary moment where the Anthropocene turns toward indigeneity as its model for resiliency while still problematically failing to account for the legacy and ongoing structural violence against Indigenous peoples.

Blanket Stories:  Seven Generations, Adawe, and Hearth (2013) by Marie Watt.

Eighteenth-Century Biowarfare

Letters and journals prove that high-ranking British military leaders during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) conspired to weaponize smallpox against North American Indigenous populations as a way of exterminating them and gaining access to their lands and resources [5].  In a letter (16 July 1763), just one of many that disclose this sentiment, British General Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America during the Seven Years’ War, writes to Colonel Henry Bouquet:

You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.  I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them down by dogs could take effect, but England is at too great a distance to think of that at present.  [6]

Blankets were to be infected with smallpox and given as gifts to Indigenous groups, since the use of dogs would prove impractical.  Moreover, the bioweaponized blankets were a far more insidious form of violence, and rise to match the colonial fears over the enmeshment of Indigenous bodies and the untamed landscape.  Clearly, Amherst’s desired “Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations,” [7] as he elsewhere writes, was intimately bound up with the project of controlling the land [8].  In fact, the colonial biopolitical association of the wild Indigenous body with the land is poignantly captured in an anxious comment by Bouquet in a letter to Amherst (29 June 1763):  “every Tree is become an Indian” [9].  The conflation of these bodies bears the scars of Lockean property theory, which conceptually underpinned colonial expansion and the violent treatment and dispossession of Indigenous peoples [10].

For Locke, the difference between merely living off the lands (hunting and fishing like animals do) and cultivating the lands in efforts of improvements is the difference in who has the right to claim ownership of that land.  In his Two Treatises on Government, especially The Second Treatise, Locke writes:  “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.  He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common” [11].  Put otherwise, it is labour in the service of improvement that grants the right to the earth [12].  From a Lockean perspective, then, unimproved or cultivated lands used by Indigenous peoples were still part of the common, a wasted or missed opportunity for development.  Indeed, the same language and colonial logic continues to be used, over two centuries later, in discussions about the Canadian tar sands.  As Rick George, former president and CEO of Suncor, the Alberta-based energy company writes, “The most appealing feature of the oil sands was the fact that they were there to be taken” [13].

Yet British efforts at terraforming were simultaneously and intentionally a project of Indigenous genocide, as Amherst’s letters betray.  Such an example dovetails with Lewis and Maslin’s “Orbis hypothesis,” their claim that “colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene” [14].  Indeed, their proposed date of 1610 for the onset of the Anthropocene, the Global Stratotype Section and Point [15] or specific date that marks a significant CO2/carbon decline (that they dub “The Orbis Spike”), is directly the result of drastic population decline due to war, enslavement and disease, with the Americas going from 54 million people in 1492 to only 6 million people by 1650 [16].  In short:  less people, less carbon.  Colonial violence thus registers itself in the carbon footprint of the Earth.  The British efforts to bioweaponize smallpox against the Indigenous peoples in the eighteenth century complement Lewis and Maslin’s theory and furnishes it with a specific event to greater texturize this Anthropocene historiography.

“Orbis Spike” in Lewis and Maslin (2015).

Bearing the unbearable past in our impossibly complex present

But what does this specific case study in eighteenth-century British bioweaponization mean for us in the Anthropocene today?  Anecdotally, it might remind us about the dangers that can lay await in the folds of a blanket or blanket term, a reminder to be weary of what is “gifted” by this ghostly anthropos, this new ungainly spectre haunting thought today [17].  The case study should also remind us of the biopolitics of controlling the Indigenous populations and their lands, and the violent means that these settler nations called Canada and the United States, or Turtle Island, have deployed since the eighteenth century.  But more importantly, as the Anthropocene increasingly dominates scholarly discourse, such that we might speak of the “Anthropocene turn” in academe, the case of the smallpox-infested blankets helps reframe discussions of the Anthropocene that otherwise continue overwhelmingly to exclude Indigenous groups and considerations of colonial violence.  We must consider more than the (white) anthropos and fossil fuels.  For as Zoe Todd insightfully suggests, the Anthropocene discourse is a variation of “white public space,” that is a space that is not only predominantly made up of the white heteropatriarchy but also a space wherein “Indigenous ideas and experiences are appropriated, or obscured, by non-Indigenous practitioners” [18].  The Anthropocene needs decolonizing and indigenizing, though this move is not without wrinkles.

The Bentwood Box (2009) by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston.

One of the best examples of this is the simultaneous turn that is occurring alongside the Anthropocene:  the “Indigenous Turn” in theory and politics, which on first glance appears inspired by governmental calls for reconciliation.  However, while the “Anthropocene Turn” and the “Indigenous Turn” would benefit from greater turning toward each other, we have reason to be wary of the ways that indigeneity is currently being looked to as a new promissory radical model for ontology, which can be understood as a form of neoliberal governmentality’s delusory strategy for survival and self-replication rather than profound change, such as the indigenization of its internal structure.  Indeed, as David Chandler and Julian Reid argue, the interest in new models of indigenous subjectivity is frequently marked by the rhetoric of resiliency.  While this may initially seem like a celebration of indigeneity, Chandler and Reid argue that the real attraction to indigenous resiliency is for the way it might help Western cultures cope with how to live within the eco-crises of the Anthropocene:  “While the modern subject is encouraged to ‘become indigenous,’ the attention to indigeneity . . . does not extend to the suffering and struggles of indigenous peoples who are held to have failed to become more-than-human exemplars of resilience” [19].  At the edge of extinction, Western culture hopes to learn how to survive.  The “radical promise” of indigeneity as a new model for being in the world, Chandler and Reid continue,

is that a different world already exists in potentia and that moderns can choose to make it by learning to world in the ways indigenous peoples already do . . .  Access to this alternate world is a question of ontology—of being differently—being in being rather than thinking, acting and world-making as if we were transcendent or possessive subjects.  [20]

Now, in the Anthropocene, we no longer have the security in thinking of nature as something “over there,” as an object capable of being fully understood, and the collapse of the nature/culture divide.  Now, the “indigenous are the anthropocene-alogists of nonmodern ontology:  they can teach us how to see the nonhuman differently” [21].  If Indigenous subjectivity is now a resource to be mined, what becomes visible in this extraction process is the difference between attending to indigeneity and the actual suffering of indigenous peoples.  We need to mind the gap between theory and practice.  In the turn to indigeneity as the way to navigate the Anthropocene, what dangers are unknowingly accepted as gifts?

Harper Eyes (2014) by Métis scholar and artist Warren Cariou. The eyes belong to Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada, who passed major reforms for the oil industry during his tenure and who also infamously said, at the 2009 G20 meeting, that “Canada has no history of colonialism.”

Like those infected blankets in Amherst’s letters, we would do well to remember to ask what violence gets insidiously smuggled in under the white covers of the Anthropocene, which one might be tempted to call (if yet another neologism were allowed) “The White MANthropocene,” for the way it extends the legacy of this problematic figure, including the tendency of this discourse parasitically to see indigeneity as its new resilient ontopolitical host.  Not unlike the eighteenth-century British view of North America as a waste to be mined, contemporary Western discourses including the Anthropocene commit an uncanny act of violence in the turn toward indigenous subjectivity as a new resource to be plundered.  The Western question it seems, now as then, remains one of manipulation and self-preservation:  How can we use indigenous subjects or knowledges to save ourselves, our ways of life, our institutions, and ultimately our world?  We need to recognize, as Alexis Shotwell suggests, the “complex entanglement of practices and habits of ignorance, repression, and active disavowal that constitute an active settler process of not telling, not seeing, and not understanding the truth of the matter” [22].  This is especially true as we wade through a new cold white discourse that still largely ignores a decolonized approach.

Retrieving and bearing the anthropogenic ugliness of our eighteenth-century history, those disastrous events, such as the smallpox conspiracy that I have here discussed, will be an important strategy in how we write the history of the Anthropocene, a historiography that although it already includes the eighteenth century and grants a significant place to Britain in this narrative is nevertheless marked by blindspots.  It is time to move past the now all too familiar citation of James Watt’s improved steam engine and the Industrial Revolution as the eighteenth century’s claim to the Anthropocene and consider the more furtive forms of anthropogenic violence from this period.  Simultaneously, it is also important to recognize the ways in which these forms of violence remain with us today.  To do this is to see colonialism, as Patrick Wolfe does, as “a structure rather than an event,” whereby colonial practices of the past grow to become the backbone of the present [23].  Indeed, the pressing task for the historiographies of the Anthropocene will be to consider the minor rather than molar, and increasingly to include in the stories that we tell about this epoch the shameful policies devised and violence committed in the projects and name of colonial terraforming.  By insisting on these historiographies that foreground the “complicated, often ugly, and humbling,” to borrow a phrase by Anna Tsing [24], we might stop perpetuating the structural violence that has defined the Anthropocene.

Notes

[1] The IUGS announced in July 2018 that we are not in the Anthropocene; we are living in a late phase of the Holocene period that they call the Meghalayan Age, which began 4,250 years ago.  It is defined by a catastrophic drought that destroyed ancient civilizations in Egypt, China, India, and the Middle East.  As Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis write:  “it seems like a small group of scientists [at the IUGS]—40 at most—have pulled off a strange coup to downplay humans’ impact on the environment.”  Maslin, Mark, and Simon Lewis.  “Anthropocene vs Meghalayan—Why Geologists are Fighting over whether Humans are a Force of Nature.”  The Conversation, 8 Aug. 2018.

[2] Working groups, conferences, academic journals, courses, and programs are all examples of this disciplining.

[3] Raworth, Kate.  “Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?”  The Guardian.  20 October 2014.  Web.

[4] Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer initially proposed James Watt’s improved steam engine in 1784 and the Industrial Revolution as the starting point for the Anthropocene.  Similarly, others take 1800 as the starting date, such as Steffen et al. (2011) and Zalasiewicz et al. (2011).  Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill.  “The Anthropocene:  Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  A 369 (2011):  842-867.  DOI:  10.1098/rsta.2010.0327.  Zalasiewicz, Jan, Mark Williams, Richard Fortey, Alan Smith, Tiffany L. Barry, Angela L. Coe, Paul R. Bown, Peter F. Rawson, Andrew Gale, Philip Gibbard, F. John Gregory, Mark W. Hounslow, Andrew C. Kerr, Paul Pearson, Robert Knox, John Powell, Colin Waters, John Marshall, Michael Oates, and Philip Stone.  “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Lon.  A 369 (2011):  1036-1055.  DOI:  10.1098/rsta.2010.0315.

[5] Peter d’Errico’s archival research was key in finding proof of Britain’s smallpox plans and Amherst’s culpability.  For a detailed account of the pertinent letters, see d’Errico, Peter.  “Jeffery Amherst and Smallpox Blankets.”  Web.  2017.

[6] Amherst to Bouquet, 16 July 1763, BL Add MSS 21634, f.323.  See also The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763.  Ed. Robert J. Andrews.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.  Vol. 15.  322.

[7] Amherst to Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of the Northern Indian Department.  9 July 1763.  Amherst, Jeffrey.  The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763.  Ed. Robert J. Andrews.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.

[8] This tension over the land plays out in another register today. Amherst is a figure still embarrassingly celebrated by Parks Canada today.  The name of the Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst National Historic Site in Prince Edward Island was recently challenged by Mi’kmaq elders and the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I.  Yet despite these calls for the national historic site to have Amherst’s name removed, Parks Canada decided to leave it and simply add a Mi’kmaq name:  Skmaqn, which means “the waiting place.”  Ironically, we still wait for reclamation.

[9] Colonel Henry Bouquet to General Amherst, 29 June 1763.

[10] Nick Allred’s contribution to this collection also attends to Locke’s theory of property, but it does not address the key role of labour in Lockean property theory and its relation to colonial violence.  Katherine Binhammer’s contribution, drawing on Adam Smith rather than Locke, acknowledges the colonial violence that comes with the addiction to economic growth.

[11] Locke, John.  Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration.  Ed. Ian Shapiro.  Yale University Press, 2003.  §32; Two Treatises 113.

[12] Also in the Second Treatise, Locke grants that Indigenous hunters claim property over their goods, such as the deer they have killed (his example) because they have “bestowed [their] labour upon it” but does not extend to them a property claim of the land as, per his definition, no labour has been exerted (Second Treatise §30; Two Treatises 112).

[13] Helbig, Louis.  Beautiful Destruction.  Rocky Mountain Books, 2014, 57.

[14] Lewis, Simon, and Mark Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519 (12 March 2015), 177.

[15] GSSP is a Global Stratotype Section and Point, a specific date and primary marker (aka, “golden spike”) for any significant change in the Earth system.

[16] “The accompanying near-cessation of farming and reduction in fire use resulted in the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland” (Lewis and Maslin [2015] 175).

[17] J. R. McNeill claims the Anthropocene is the “specter . . . haunting academia” (117).  Neill, J. R.  “Introductory Remarks:  The Anthropocene and the Eighteenth Century.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 49.2 (2016): 117-128.

[18] Todd, Zoe.  “Indigenizing the Anthropocene” in Art in the Anthropocene:  Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies.  Ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.  London:  Open Humanities Press, 2015, 243.

[19] Chandler, David and Julian Reid.  “‘Being in Being’:  Contesting the Ontopolitics of Indigeneity.”  The European Legacy 23.3 (2018):  254.  DOI:  10.1080/10848770.2017.1420284

[20] Chandler and Reid, “‘Being in Being,'” 257.

[21] Chandler and Reid, “‘Being in Being,'” 259.

[22] Shotwell, Alexis.  Against Purity:  Living in Ethically Compromised Times.  University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 38.

[23] Quoted in Shotwell, 36.

[24] Tsing, Anna.  The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.  Princeton University Press, 2015, 33.

“Strategic Presentism” and 18th-Century Studies

My deepest thanks to Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski for having me on this panel alongside this great lineup of people I admire.  It’s a pleasure to have Anna Kornbluh here to help us think through what V21 might have to offer us working in the eighteenth century.  A little about myself and my connection to V21:  I’m totally one of those scholars that pushes the “long” part of the “long 18th and 19th centuries,” but this in-betweenness has forced me to think a lot about my scholarly investments in working across these historical periods and how sometimes periodization limits the questions we can ask and the objects with which we might engage critically.  I connected with V21 through one of my dissertation committee members, Emily Steinlight, and I have since contributed to one of V21’s Collations, an online forum that brings together two to three scholars, often with very different intellectual interests and at entirely different stages of their careers, to read and respond to new scholarship in the field. [1]  V21’s openness to what its Manifesto calls “multiple modalities of scholarship and collectivity” has been extremely exciting to me as someone who has been working through what ways we might reach beyond the academic audiences of journals and monographs. [2]  Today, I want to reflect a bit on the limits and affordances of the V21 Collective’s concept of “strategic presentism.”

I can’t help but return to Lynn Hunt’s 2002 short essay, “Against Presentism,” written for the American Historical Association. [3]  For Hunt, presentism risks “putting historians out of business” by reducing history to a study of sameness based on the search for our individual or collective roots of identity.  Furthermore, she describes the worst presentism as a kind of “moral complacency and self-congratulation” perpetuated by scholars who try to claim the righteous high ground over the archaic, problematic past.  In Hunt’s view, presentism leads to a kind of selective history that sees what it wants to see because it wants to shore up “various kinds of identity politics” that might be better attended to by “sociology, political science, and ethnic studies.”  “We are all caught up in the ripples of time, and we have no idea of where they are headed,” Hunt concludes.

I find myself perplexed by this assessment.  I think the urgency to act and respond in our current turbulent political climate is born out of the fact that we as humanists do know where things are headed precisely because we work to understand how and why events in history have unfolded as they have.  What really is the problem with finding sameness in the past?  Why does continuity necessarily mean “temporal superiority,” as Hunt puts it?  In my understanding, opposing presentism doesn’t get politics out of history.  To quote Eric Rauchway,

Writing about the past as if it existed wholly on its own terms and did not lead to the present suggests that history is utterly useless today—a cozy pursuit that cannot disturb our assumptions about what is happening now.  It makes history marvelously conservative…  After all, all history gets written by someone, somewhen.  Our paths to the past start in the present.  A tiny sliver—and never a representative cross-section—of humanity has access to research libraries and proprietary databases, to publishers, to income and leisure time sufficient to pursue history as profession or avocation.  [4]

Pretending that historians are detached from present circumstance, for Rauchway at least, seems no more than pretense.  Now, I don’t know if I would go so far as to frame history as such a teleological enterprise that makes all lines converge on our present, but I do think there’s a disavowal of presentist commitments in the claim that we “study the 18th century for the 18th century’s sake and only on its terms.”  If we ask our undergraduates to answer the “stakes” question in their own thinking and writing, why are we not beholden to that same question?  I think students deserve an honest and nuanced answer to the question of why does this matter.  (It just is and because I said so don’t count).  Framing it in terms of the present that they know not only encourages students to discover unexpected investments in what they’re learning but also witnesses history as itself dynamic, living—perpetually rippling into our present and beyond, to repurpose Hunt’s image.

The first thesis of the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective” takes to task Victorian Studies for having “fallen prey to positivist historicism, a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past.”  While I’ve heard a number of colleagues over the past day or two insist on the value of this ever-thickening description of the past, I think what is strategic about “strategic presentism” is that it demands that we “think critically about the past in the present in order to change the present.” [5]  I emphasize “change” because not only are we fleshing out continuities but also learning to better conceptualize those continuities as the means by which we can begin to imagine different futures in a present that so often seems to be without a future (or at least a viable or sustainable one).  I am also particularly taken with Anna’s formulation of “active listening to the past.” [6]  In our eagerness to describe, to inhabit, to reproduce, to contextualize the voices of the past (even to the extent that we sometimes talk over them), what are we training ourselves to hear, to tune out, or even fail to hear all together?

We have always been presentist, Emily Steinlight frequently likes to remind me. [7]  No, not all presentisms are created equal, nor are all presentisms strategic.  But we are shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it.  The act of scholarship is shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it.  The institutions within which we work are shaped and motivated by the conditions of the present, whether or not we acknowledge it.

And I don’t think we should be ashamed of that.

Notes

[1]  My collations contribution was on the book forum for Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind:  Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature.  The forum was composed of reflections by Elisha Cohn (Cornell), Kate Flint (University of Southern California), and myself.

[2]  See Thesis 10 of the Manifesto of the V21 Collective.

[3]  Lynn Hunt.  “Against Presentism.”  Perspectives on History.  May 1, 2002.

[4]  “Present Tense.”  The New Republic, 2007.

[5] David Sweeney Coombs and Danielle Coriale.  “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism:  Introduction.”  Victorian Studies 59.1 (2016):  88.

[6] “Present Tense Futures of the Past.”  “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism:  Introduction.”  Victorian Studies 59.1 (2016):  100.

[7] “We Have Always Been Presentist.”  “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism:  Introduction.”  Victorian Studies 59.1 (2016):  105.

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.

The “Ordinary Science” of Literary Studies

When V21 and the V21 manifesto first appeared a few years ago, I was very excited and something of a cheerleader from the sidelines of social media.  Who doesn’t like a group of younger scholars standing up and telling the older generation that it has gotten it all wrong?  And at the time and still to this day, I’m supportive of anyone in literary studies who is irritated by historicist orthodoxy—the orthodoxy of the baby boom generation that taught me, and against which scholars like my friend Sandra Macpherson and I have been grating for some time.  That and the interest in form and aesthetics, the demand for more conceptually grounded criticism, all seemed and still seem terrific.  So, go V21!  I said that then, and I’ll say that now.

For today’s roundtable, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski asked us to consider a question.  Does ASECS need its own version of V21?  Given what I just said, my answer may be a bit surprising.  It is no, or a qualified no, or a no, not really, or a no but also in one specific, lower case way yes.  The V21 manifesto advocated for a turn away from what it called “positivist historicism” toward theory (especially) and form (sort of, really more of a turn to that catch all chimera “new formalism”).  I have had a lot to say in print lately about the category of form, so I won’t belabor that just now, except to say that V21 in practice I think turned out to be less interested in form than it purported to be, or was unable or unwilling to distinguish form from politics and so from the history it ostensibly wanted to bracket.  (I believe Sandra Macpherson is going to have more to say about this.  I’m echoing some of her own ideas as well as some of what Anahid Nersessian and I had to say last year in our Critical Inquiry article “Form and Explanation” and in the subsequent exchanges that article produced).  So I won’t say much more about that now.  But I do want to note how the broad currents of this kind of talk and these kinds of debates, that is the broad currents of what the V21 manifesto was after—the limits of archivism and historicism, reconsiderations of form and formalism, possibilities for presentism—have run strong in eighteenth-century studies for some time.  In fact they have run parallel with, if not preceded, conversations our Victorianist colleagues have been having.  I argued in my SEL year’s work in review essay of 2010, for example, that “historicism had perhaps run its course” and that not only did it fail to provide a rationale for what we do but that that best work I had read seemed to be cutting against the historicist grain.  Just after that, ASECS had the first of several panels on form, another on close reading, and soon after that Sandra Macpherson’s notorious, “against history” panel, colloquially named by everyone there as simply “fuck history.”  This discussion continues apace, tracking and anticipating developments in the profession at large (lately over method—method being the great common discussion of our present moment, that is, how we read, why, following what disciplinary protocols or points of style, etc.).  So when I say “no,” I’m saying in part that I think we don’t need our own manifesto to keep the conversation alive.

As far as I’m concerned, moreover, a kind of anti-manifesto pluralism and respect for heterogeneity and the work of others better fits our straightened times.  Despite my opening gambit about youth movements, about impatience with orthodoxies, historicist or otherwise, all of which I believe entirely, I’ve never liked telling people to stop doing what they’re doing, or when anyone else does that either.  Every time I come to ASECS I’m just bowled over by the commitments our colleagues bring to whatever corner of the world commands their interest, whether that’s Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” or the development of the conversation piece or the history of calico.

I’ve come to think that heterogeneity and pluralism within the field of literary studies is essential to a defense of the field of literary studies, considered as a discipline with its own way of accounting for the world, its own distinctive methods and points of style, its own way of telling truths about the parts of the world with which it is concerned.  I think if you peel back from the surface divisions that might be expressed in manifesto-language you find a bed of common method, common purpose, and common explanatory rigor variously expressed in diverse form.  I’ve come to call this the “ordinary science” of literary studies, and I think it ought to be defended, given especially the perilous state of the discipline, given that is the existential threat to the humanities, to literary studies, and to the study of older periods, the eighteenth century one among them.

In preparatory chat over email among the panelists and co-chairs, and in the chatter at the conference over just the past day and a half, I’ve been again excited by all the talk about presentism, perhaps the piece of the V21 program most currently in circulation, that is currently, this very second.  Again, I think there’s much to commend here, and I’ve found the high-caliber discussion of models of historical time and past-present relations done under the auspices of V21 quite thrilling.  The desire here seems palpable:  Who doesn’t want to find ways to address our deplorable political moment with resources from the materials we know well?  And, given the overall context of shrinking enrollments, shrinking resources, and the sense that our materials can be a hard sell, who doesn’t want to find a way to get students interested in older works by teaching them in such a way that makes them seem relevant or, well, relatable?  Having said that, I do want to sound a counter note to the desire for presentism, however, not in the name of antiquarianism or positivism, but merely to underscore the context of disciplinary expertise and common explanatory method that makes presentism curious.  The making of things relevant risks, as I think we sometimes see, a kind of default to intelligent banter about urgent contemporary issues, from climate change to #metoo to of course Trumpism.  None of us have any particular expertise in these issues.  Rather, we bring our expertise and our methods of explanation to political or ethical matters as they take shape in materials with which we are intimately familiar and about which we have something to say particular to our expertise and training.  This ought to put some interesting limits on the desire to make everything present, or on how we think about the quiddity of our objects of concern, located as they are in some discrete temporal corner of the universe.  At the very least, we ought to be cautious I think about the critique of periodization that comes along for the ride of presentism, strategic or otherwise.  For reasons that should be obvious to anyone paying attention to what’s happening in English departments across the academy, now is a bad time to be getting rid of periods.  It just leads to the question, who needs an eighteenth-centuryist anyway?

With these sorts of institutional matters in mind I want to close on an upbeat note, the part that is a qualified or lower case “yes” to Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski’s question.  What V21 as a loose network has excelled at it seems to me is providing platforms for intellectual exchange and scholarly community.  Their various seminars, online fora, meet ups, conferences, book symposia, and so on have been, so far as I can tell, a real boon for scholars of the period.  ASECS really should emulate that.  We need semi-formal occasions and platforms for discussion about the texts and topics that matter to us.  I think it would be terrific if our exchange with the V21 collective today led to some emulating on our part of their infrastructural prowess, modest but real achievements like summer reading groups or online colloquies about recent books in the field, get togethers outside of the annual organizational ones.  This would be a great thing indeed.

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.

“Dialectical Presentism”: Race, Empire, and Slavery in 18th-Century Studies

Like many of you, I’ve followed the V21 developments with much interest and excitement, if I’ve largely done so from the margins (this is the first time I’ve been a part of any formal discussion about V21).  There are so many things to commend and discuss about the manifesto and the published symposia, roundtable discussions, and essays that are out in the world now (particularly V21’s visions for institutional critique, which I hope we can talk more about in our discussion but which I’m actually not going to talk about now); what I do want to talk about is V21’s call for “strategic presentism” and how it relates to my vantage point in 18th-century studies.  The term itself, which of course recalls Gayatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism,” is, as I understand it, an attempt to retrieve presentism from the charge of anachronistic projection (a reading of the present uncritically into the past and a collapsing of historical identity and difference) and to redeploy it as a way to signal how the past informs the present, is at work in the present, and how the present shapes itself according to this examined past.  While this sounds all well and good, I have to admit that, as I have been trying to follow the V21 collective’s adventures, I just keep getting stuck here at this concept (stuck as in stunned or perplexed).  Is this really a problem for 18th-century studies?  Do we need a strategic presentism to signal the urgency and relevancy of our field?

I think my stuckness has everything to do with where I am situated in the broader field—race, empire, and slavery studies.  I can’t really speak for the whole of 18th-century studies (although I’d like to have conversations about this whole today), but the field of slavery studies is shot through with strategic presentism.  I think this concept (and the need for it) was puzzling to me, because it’s something so obvious in slavery studies.  Race, empire, and slavery have a certain almost irrefutable significance in the present.  I mean, not only does it instantly signal a special kind of monstrousness if one doesn’t understand the present import of studying the history and representations of race, empire, and slavery, but also these things have such clear, obvious, well-articulated afterlives in the present that seem redundant to even mention (which I could mention, but the point is that I don’t have to).  And 18th-century scholars of slavery are really adept at making these strategically presentist moves in their research, teaching, discussions, works in progress, etc.  Just in the two race, empire, and slavery panels I went to yesterday, for instance, (one on Ramesh Mallipeddi’s Spectacular Suffering:  Witnessing Slavery in the 18th-century British Atlantic and one on “Life and Death in and across Race and Empire”) the following issues were raised:  how the form and logics of 18th-century abolition continues to affect our thinking today (the upshot:  we’re stuck in abolitionist paradigms, help … we need new paradigms!), the untapped potential for 18th-century philosophers of moral sentiment (Hume, Smith, etc.) as models for deploying sentiment as crisis management and for creating a vocabulary and paradigm to deal with what certain bad historical actors are doing to harm fellow humans (and how to stop them), the continuities of the relationship between 18th-century discourses of displacement (one example being restoration rewritings of The Aeneid) and the current Mediterranean migration crisis (Charlotte Sussman’s talk), and Swift’s Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels and drone warfare (Peter DeGabriele’s talk).  This morning’s roundtable on presentism (“Mind ‘Yore’ Business? Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Problem of Presentism”) offered up even more examples:  Al Coppola’s paper on the persistence of Newtonian enlightenment assumptions in the present, specifically how our blind faith in universal laws undergirds popular scientific studies like Geoffrey West’s Scale, and Grace Rexroth’s paper on 18th-century typography, neuroscience, and MRI memory studies.  And I could go on…

If anything, there’s too much presentism in race, empire, and slavery studies.  What we risk is not just misreading the texts of our past and what they can offer us in our present but a misapprehension of the present as well (more on this in a minute).  I don’t think the answer is a return to reductionist historicist paradigms (those that V21, I think, are usefully critiquing) but a dialectical presentism, a presentism that can hold the past and present at once, that can account for an interdependence of identity and difference, that can project a future out of this mess and tangle of conjunction and disjunction.  This need for but also demonstration of such a dialectical presentism came up for me in one of these aforementioned panels from yesterday when Suvir Kaul made a comment about how he thinks the Black Lives Matters Movement is influencing his teaching of the 18th-century.  The example he gave was of a student in one of his courses who was essentially waiting all semester to get to Equiano’s Narrative, only to express profound disappointment once there and declaring it accommodationist, not seeing it as a narrative of self-making as he was hoping she would.  Now, as we were discussing at the panel, to some degree the Narrative is accommodationist, but it’s also self-making and non-accommodationist, but we perhaps see only the former and have this kind of disillusioned feeling and reaction because we’re expecting Equiano to belong to a certain black community that exists today (our imagination of this kind of continuity of black collectivity is the thing Stephen Best critiques in his 2012 essay “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” which we also discussed).  Such a need for dialectical presentism also comes up in my own work, which is, among other things, about what the study of servitude and slavery (and its relationship) can tell us about the present, in particular what it can tell us about the history of race as a concept—that race is an ideological concept that we made and that we have representations of its making, which, of course, means that it can be unmade.  But in order for it (and racism) to be unraveled in the present, we have to recognize that it wasn’t always like this, that race was not a settled, congealed category in the worlds of (especially early) 18th-century texts.  Distance and difference are necessary in our present in order to understand the past, the present itself, and to work for a different kind of future.  So, presentism is a problem, and I think that, if we are to use it strategically, then it must be a dialectical one, so why not call it that?

One question that Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski asked in their call for this roundtable is whether or not the 18th century offers different approaches to the problems V21 so deftly lays out.  In some respects, I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.  Perhaps the 18th century is uniquely situated as a field to see the need for some form of dialectical presentism.  As I see it, our period is one of emergence, a period that showcases the simultaneous identity and difference of a host of now intelligible modern categories (and ones that are perhaps more settled in the 19th century), whether we’re talking about race, the novel, the author, the nation, the bourgeois subject, or sexuality, etc.  The 18th century is strategically positioned to show us how things are made (and how they can be unmade) if we can figure out how to let it, and I think its transitional character gives us a useful model for understanding the dialectical relationship between our present and our past as we try to work for new futures.

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.

ASECS and V21 Roundtable Organizers’ Response: Collective Ways Forward

When we put out the call for participants on this roundtable, we asked whether eighteenth-century studies needed its own V21 moment, but we must confess that in thinking about the relationship between the two communities, we found ourselves wondering, instead, whether V21 needs eighteenth-century studies.  Many eighteenth-centuryists—as Katarzyna Bartoszynska noted while attending the inaugural V21 Symposium—will have read many of the texts and theorists whose names circulate in Victorian Studies, but can the same be said of work in our field, for scholars outside of it?  Could the more idiosyncratic status of eighteenth-century literature within literary studies account for the fact that some of what V21 identifies as pressing problems for Victorianists do not similarly trouble scholarship in our field?  Presentism, for instance:  not only do we not shy away from presentism, we are in fact continuously called upon to articulate the bearing our texts, and our work, have on the present, if only to persuade students to read it.

For some time, many of us in eighteenth-century studies—as reflected in the institution of the “long eighteenth century”—have proceeded with an arguably irreverent approach to historical periodization, encroaching on both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in order to posit wide-ranging (or what some anonymous reviewers have described as “recklessly broad”) theoretical arguments.  We routinely reach to material beyond the historical eighteenth century to think about what we nevertheless consider “eighteenth-century problems.”  This tendency was observable in the roundtable:  we were struck by how little mention there was of eighteenth-century texts.  Rather than rely primarily on eighteenth-century thinkers to frame their approach to the V21 manifesto, panelists turned, for instance, to E. M. Forster and Matthew Arnold (though, to be fair, Sandra Macpherson emphasized how much Arnold is relying on Burke).  On the one hand, this reaffirmed our sense that dix-huitiemistes are voracious readers who eagerly join in the kinds of “multi-field and multi-disciplinary conversations” that the V21 manifesto calls for.  As Stephanie Insley Hershinow points out, a kind of “naïve synchronism” has served many of us well, particularly in the classroom, and may be leveraged to foster not only good scholarship but also new forms of public writing; such an approach could elevate and “bring in” the kinds of nimble thinking the academic precariat is already being asked to do, but without institutional recognition.  But if we want Victorianists and other specialists outside our field to reciprocate with an occasional deep dive into our texts—the literature and philosophy of the eighteenth century, as well as scholarship on it—who would we point them to?

Secondly—and these responses may reveal to V21-ists how people outside the field see them!—we had not expected presentism to be such a central point in the conversation.  Indeed, of all the issues raised in the V21 manifesto, this seemed like the one least troubling to eighteenth-centuryists (though, with the contorted logic of the psyche, this may well be precisely why everyone was drawn to it).  Carrying the conversation forward, it seems clear to us that beyond the question of presentist methods (strategic or not), we must also continue to think about the critical reassessment of antiquarianism and uncritical historicism, both within the eighteenth century and in our studies of it; the fear of our work not being compelling to scholars outside the discipline; the call for more rigorous theorizing, and for not opposing history and theory); the rethinking of form and formalism, including what Jonathan Kramnick describes as “form detached from politics,” and its relationship to an understanding of literary form, in Sandra Macpherson’s words, as “politics by another means.”  While, as several panelists argued, eighteenth-century studies is already doing a lot of the things V21 calls for, and has done them well, we must commit not only to continuing in these paths but also to doing other and better work as well.  How might we more effectively converse across fields and disciplines?  How do we generate multiple modalities and new institutional frameworks?  And, crucially for many of us engaged in this conversation, what is the relationship between these approaches and the mandate to assess academia and its projects in light of both colonization and decolonization?

The wonderful responses of the panelists strongly suggest that eighteenth-century texts and scholars offer a rich resource for the robust theorization of presentism—a commitment to recognizing how the pressures of the present generate both the past and the future as epistemological objects—and an excellent model of synthetic thinking and dialogue between fields.  As Jonathan Kramnick points out, when it comes to present-day matters, none of us has any particular expertise.  Rather, “we bring our expertise and our methods of explanation to political or ethical matters as they take shape in materials with which we are intimately familiar and about which we have something to say particular to our expertise and training.”  Travis Chi Wing Lau urges us to consider how even historicist knowledges are presentist formations, since expertise is forged within the conditions of the present.  Rather than disavow the “present in the past,” he argues, we must attend to how we “listen” to the past from our own particular, present positions:  “what are we training ourselves to hear, to tune out, or even fail to hear all together?”  Laura E. Martin draws attention to the unique quality of the eighteenth-century materials on which our expertise is focused, namely, that we recognize them as works-in-progress, simultaneously different and similar to present phenomena, having not yet coalesced into their more familiar forms.  Where the V21 Manifesto asserts that “we are Victorian,” Laura E. Martin shows us that it is because of the ways in which we are not of the eighteenth century that the “transitional character [of C18 objects] gives us a useful model for understanding the dialectical relationship between our present and our past.”

Finally, as to the question of institutional frameworks and new modalities:  what are the best ways to produce future collaborations, not only across V21 and eighteenth-century studies, but broadly across various fields and emergent collectives?  Borders between eighteenth-century scholars, Romanticists, and Victorianists grow ever blurrier, and we are not the only V21 affiliates whose work fits in more with ASECS than NAVSA.  Is the time ripe for a friendly takeover, a broadening of the tent?  Are V21’s intellectual goals bigger than Victorianism—are they, in fact, a clarion call for literary studies as a whole?  Or do those of us working in the eighteenth century need, instead, to start our own collective, and encourage cross-overs?  Discussion in the panel’s Q&A suggested that such an organization would have as one of its objectives a commitment to antiracist and anticolonial work in our field, joining the work of groups such as Bigger6 in Romantic studies, ShakeRace in early modern studies, and the Medievalists of Color.  (Since the recent ASECS meeting, we have added the BIPOC18 collective to this list).  While V21 is clearly engaged in such work—as Anna Kornbluh pointed out, V21 is motivated by the postcolonial call to break down the national and historical frameworks through which literary studies have reproduced imperialism—this goal is not explicitly part of the manifesto.  Should it be?  Or, rather than perpetually revise our mission statements, should we focus on making collectives and building coalitions, respecting each organization’s way of approaching the big picture?

One thing that the V21 Collective has done beautifully is actively to integrate graduate student, non-tenure-track, and early career researchers in ways that allow them to feel (correctly!) that it is their platform as much as anyone else’s.  It has served as a model for other collectives in this regard.  We believe that, in our shared but inequitable present, providing a “home” for institutionally disenfranchised peers, and practicing non-hierarchical methods of interaction, is one of the primary reasons we need new platforms, genres, and scholar-activist communities in our fields right now.  Whether or not we organize a “V21 for the C18,” how might we best provide space for active collaboration across not only periods but also differentials of institutional power?  One thing we have observed as C18-based affiliates of V21 is that traditional periodizations are, in fact, not a separate issue from the question of how institutions organize power.  Building new coalitions in defiance of hierarchy necessitates transhistorical and cross-field thinking.  We certainly long for academic frameworks and infrastructures that would put us in touch not only with Victorianists, or Modernists, but also Early Modernists and Medievalists, of all ranks.  It seems vital that we routinely remind each other that one period’s “emergent objects” can be another’s foregone conclusion, and to take stock of the way our different knowledges appear from each others’ perspectives.  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that one of the reasons we, as eighteenth-centuryists, ended up in V21’s orbit is because its work is so exciting!  In a present that is so bleak in so many ways, we all need the gravitational pull of concerted collective effort to stay in motion.  We feel the possibilities of broader collaboration, and of circulating knowledges along new paths, as an influx of energy.  How might we reciprocate and carry this energy forward by making eighteenth-century studies a vitalizing resource beyond the period, the discipline, the academy?

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.

Reframing the Pregnancy Story: On Literature, Stitching, and Lost Narratives

This essay is republished with permission from Nursing Clio, where it first appeared.

An 1805 needlework mourning picture with two embroidered inscriptions that read:  “In Memory / of / Henry Ten Eyck / obit 1st July 1794 / AEt: 8 Yrs & 5 Mths” and “In Memory of / Catharine Ten Eyck / Obit:25th. Aug: 1797 / AEt: 18 Months.”  (Margaret Ten Eyck/Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library)

My Story

When I found out I was pregnant on July 1, 2016, I thought it was the beginning of a story to which I knew the ending.  My partner, Carter, and I had only just decided to try to become pregnant.  It was our first attempt, and it was a success!  What a wonderful, happy story.  One month later, several of our close friends and most family knew our news.  But when we went for our first ultrasound on August 5, we were devastated.  There was no heartbeat.  The technician went to get the doctor, who told us how common miscarriages were and how many times he gave this bad news in a day.  I learned that what I had experienced was a missed miscarriage—the pregnancy had ended, probably around week 6 or 7, the heart had failed to beat, but my body hadn’t reacted.  I held myself together until we left the building, and then the loss overwhelmed me.  I wept uncontrollably in the car and started messaging all of our friends and family.  “There is no heartbeat, I lost the pregnancy.”

More than anything, I felt how I had lost a story of the future that I had built up in my mind.  We had been discussing names, thinking about how to arrange our lives around a baby.  About what it would be like to have a child, a family together.  What has followed in the last two years has been even more difficult than I could have imagined and has required many alterations to our pregnancy story.  The loss of the expected narrative and the discovery of new narratives is what I want to focus on here.

When I lost my pregnancy, I started to feel like everything else in my life was also “miscarrying,” especially my work.  I’m a professor of eighteenth-century literature, and I was about to go up for tenure in the year following my loss.  I had to prepare a summary of my work for the university to review, and I felt like a failure:  I focused on rejections and questioned my productivity.  But over the course of the past two years (and, I should say, with the help of psychotherapy) I have started to revise that narrative and to become more confident.  I also began to see pregnancy and child loss in the literature I study and love, and this discovery led to acts of commemoration for me.

Mourning Pregnancy and Infant Loss in the Eighteenth Century

My experiences with pregnancy, loss, and infertility have made me think about how similar losses would have felt in the eighteenth century.  Britain’s Queen Anne (1665-1714) had seventeen pregnancies, only three of which resulted in live births [1].  Anne’s biographer, Anne Somerset, notes that even though “inconsolable sorrow could be condemned as impious or even sinful, it proved difficult for Anne to endure her tribulations with fortitude” [2].  The idea that too much grief was unchristian was common in the eighteenth century, and women were often blamed not only for the impact they might have on their fetus but also for excessive grieving after the loss of a pregnancy or child [3].

Nicole Garret has noted the tendency for male advice writers to downplay child loss and “impose a rationale of consolation” on women [4].  But women weren’t so easily convinced.  Lady Frances Norton “spent years stitching original poetry about her dead daughter upon covers, stools, and chairs”[5].  Women also wrote poetry to their unborn fetuses that focused on “the burden of pregnancy and the fear of injury to either the mother or to the foetus” [6].  Mothers who left their children at London’s Foundling Hospital also left textile tokens sometimes personalized with embroidery.  The token was meant to help identify the child if the mother could later come back and claim them [7].

One fictional scene of maternal grief inspired my own research and became therapeutic for me [8].  In her 1814 novel, The Wanderer, Frances Burney describes a scene reminiscent of those reproduced in embroidered mourning pieces of the era.  The heroine of the novel, Juliet, and her friend Gabriella stand over the grave of Gabriella’s young son.  They are in a “church-yard upon [a] hill” and with a “full view of the wide spreading ocean” when Juliet sees her friend “bend over a small elevation of earth,” and Juliet responds by “leaning over a monument” while she bathes herself in tears at the grief of her friend [9].  Before Gabriella recognizes Juliet, she assumes she is a fellow-mourner and asks:  “Alas, Madam! are you, also, deploring the loss of a child?”  The two grieve together so earnestly “that neither of them seemed to have any sensation left of self, from excess of solicitude for the other” [10].

My embroidered mourning piece based on Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (1814).  (Alicia Kerfoot/Nursing Clio)

After reading this scene and looking at surviving examples of mourning pictures, I began my own embroidered mourning picture.  I wanted to make material not only my grief but also my research.  I sketched an interpretation of the scene from The Wanderer and included the traditional elements of a mourning piece.  When I’m finished, I’ll write the names of the family members I’ve lost over the past two years on the tombstones.  I’ll also write “angel child” on one of the tombstones, which is what Gabriella calls her son.  The mourning picture often depicted national or communal grief and was meant as an exercise in needlework for young women; it especially flourished in America after the death of George Washington [11].  In this scene from The Wanderer and in the embroidered mourning pieces of the era, the public or communal fuse with the personal.  One example from the Winterthur Museum (the headline image of this article) includes inscriptions to two children:  one aged 8 years and one aged 18 months.

My embroidery is a memorial to my lost pregnancy and a work of hope that the narrative will change soon.  When I embroider, I can control the stitches and the appearance of my work; I can see it progress, stitch-by-stitch, and it gives me satisfaction.  Bridget Long notes that in the eighteenth century, “needlework acted as a distraction while women pondered personal concerns” [12].  It has certainly worked that way for me.

My personal copy of a first Canadian edition of Anne’s House of Dreams (1917).  (Alicia Kerfoot/Nursing Clio)

Another Queen Anne:  Infant Loss in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams

Anne’s House of Dreams does the same kind of commemorative work as a mourning piece.  In August 1914, the same week that WWI began, L. M. Montgomery lost her infant, Hugh Alexander, at birth.  Montgomery was in the middle of writing Anne of the Island (1914) and dedicated herself to finishing the novel, despite “a lethargic depression.”  She wrote:  “never did I write a book under greater stress” [13].

Anne’s House of Dreams, which was published in 1917, was the novel that materialized this grief.  In the novel, Anne and Gilbert settle into their “house of dreams” on Prince Edward Island.  The book focuses on Anne’s friendship with her neighbor, Leslie Moore.  Leslie is trapped in an unhappy and difficult marriage and often envies Anne’s happiness.  When Anne tells her she is pregnant with her first child, Leslie responds “so you are to have that, too,” though later she stitches “a tiny white dress of exquisite workmanship” with “delicate embroidery” as a show of her love [14].  When Anne’s baby, a girl named Joyce, dies shortly after birth, she is dressed “in the beautiful dress Leslie had made” [15].

In the novel, Anne downplays her talent as a writer, saying, “Oh, I do little things for children.  I haven’t done much since I was married.  And I have no designs on a great Canadian novel . . . that is quite beyond me” [16].  Sarah Emsley connects this attitude to how Montgomery’s work was being classified as children’s literature at the time, even though Montgomery didn’t imagine it to be so [17].  In response to a letter from a reader who “thought her characters were unrealistic” Montgomery wrote, “Do you think Anne was happy when her baby died—when her sons went to the war—when one was killed?” [18].  She linked the death of Anne’s baby to losses she would experience during the war, and all in response to a suggestion that Montgomery’s own writing was idealistic rather than serious.

I think that in Anne’s House of Dreams Montgomery aligned Anne’s lost infant with the lost voices of woman writers.  That her first child is a girl who dies at birth, and her second is a healthy boy of “ten pounds,” seems to parallel the way that Anne hands over the writing of the “great Canadian novel” to Owen Ford, a male journalist from Toronto.  What Anne does end up writing is a new narrative that imagines what Joy would have looked like if she had lived:  “she would have been over a year old.  She would have been toddling around on her tiny feet and lisping a few words.  I can see her so plainly” [19].  She keeps Joy alive in her mind and writes a narrative for her.  It isn’t the one she expected, but it’s one in which Joy gets to have a voice, “lisping a few words.”

New Narratives

Though L. M. Montgomery experienced the loss of an infant, some of what she had Anne give voice to resonates with my experience of pregnancy loss and infertility.  So many times these past two years, I have thought about what might have been and what might be.  I have connected my own struggles to write with my inability to become pregnant.  And now I have been thinking about a new narrative:  that of being the parent of a child conceived with a donor egg.  I think about the community of women stitching together, mourning together, and writing new narratives of loss and hope together in the fiction that I love, and it makes me grateful for what I’ve experienced.  It has been difficult, but it’s given me empathy and made me attend to the losses of those around me.

Carter and I have also been overwhelmed by how many people have shared their stories with us.  Not long after my miscarriage, a friend started a blog on the complexity of pregnancy loss.  More recently, I was moved by a post by Sophie Coulombeau on the devastating but so common story of such losses.  Friends, family, and acquaintances have offered support. It is thanks to their generosity that we can afford the donor egg process and are ready to begin it, but how this part of the story will end, I have no idea.

Notes

  1. Anne Somerset.  Queen Anne:  The Politics of Passion.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2012.  81, 162.
  2. Somerset.  Queen Anne.  75.
  3. Jenifer Buckley.  Gender, Pregnancy and Power in Eighteenth-Century Literature:  The Maternal Imagination.  London:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.  192.
  4. Nicole Garret.  “Mansplaining Maternal Grief” (paper presented at American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Meeting, Orlando, March 2018).  2.
  5. Garret. “Mansplaining Maternal Grief.”  4.
  6. Buckley.  Gender, Pregnancy, and Power.  191.
  7. John Styles.  Threads of Feeling:  The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770.  London:  The Foundling Museum, 2013.  13, 57.
  8. I also gave papers on the subject of this scene at the meetings of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in 2017 and 2018.
  9. Frances Burney.  The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties.  1814.  Eds. Margaret Anne Doody, Robert L. Mack, and Peter Sabor.  Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2001.  385-386.
  10. Burney.  The Wanderer.  387.
  11. Rozsika Parker.  The Subversive Stitch:  Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine.  London:  I. B. Tauris, 1984.  136. Anita Schorsch.  “Mourning Art:  A Neoclassical Reflection in America.”  The American Art Journal 8.1 (1976):  5.
  12. Bridget Long.  “‘Regular Progressive Work Occupies My Mind Best’:  Needlework as a Source of Entertainment, Consolation and Reflection” Textile 14.2.  182.
  13. Quoted in Mary Rubio, Lucy Maud Montgomery:  The Gift of Wings.  Anchor Canada, 2010.  185.
  14. L. M. Montgomery.  Anne’s House of Dreams.  1917.  Toronto:  Seal Books, McClelland-Bantam, Inc.  105.
  15. Montgomery.  Anne’s House of Dreams.  117.
  16. Montgomery.  Anne’s House of Dreams.  138.
  17. Rubio.  Lucy Maud Montgomery.  289.
  18. Quoted in Rubio.  Lucy Maud Montgomery.  426.
  19. Montgomery.  Anne’s House of Dreams.  192.

Writing The King’s Favorite

From a dedicated and, I guess, decent enough scholar to an unabashed and unapologetic novelist, my journey has culminated in a novel employing my previous scholarship and deep interest in one of the most fascinating, yet still generally under-appreciated, periods of English history—the Restoration.  The novel The King’s Favorite (published by an independent press in the summer of 2018) is a mystery thriller featuring fictional and factual characters—most notably Lady Castlemaine, Nell Gwynn, and Charles II.  The genesis of the novel goes back almost twenty years, when I was mixing my scholarly work with my dormant love of theater, which recommenced in 1986 when I agreed to portray Ernest in Wilde’s memorable comedy.  In addition, I wrote thirty-five plays from 1994 to 2011, one of them being “The King’s Favorite,” a play I didn’t intend to cast and present to an audience as I did the others.  The following year, at the 2000 SEASECS conference in Savannah, I read a paper on the construction of the drama, which concentrated primarily on four women–two fictional and the other two being Barbara Villiers and Nell Gwynn.  Returning home after the conference, I deposited the paper in the archives, assuming I would do nothing more with it.

Unknown woman, formerly known as Nell Gwyn.  Studio of Sir Peter Lely.  Oil on canvas, circa 1675.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.

Turning from playwriting to fiction, I was fortunate enough to have a number of novels accepted for publication by several independent presses, most with contemporary settings, although two were set in 1897 and another in 1860.  Only then did I buckle under the weight of guilt for ignoring the period that inspired half of my academically published work.  All right, then—my next novel would have the Restoration as a backdrop, but what kind of novel would it be?  A sweet yet tragic romance featuring the son of one of Charles II’s ministers and the Puritan daughter of one of the men executed in 1660 for signing off on the beheading of Charles I eleven years earlier?  Or how about a paranormal novel featuring James, the Duke of Monmouth, and the sale of his soul to an enticing devil in disguise named the Duchess of Dybbuk?  Why not a delicious and graphic shocker about Queen Catherine’s complete mental collapse and the subsequent murder of every woman her husband had ever slept with?  A blood and guts corker with vast amounts of actual blood and guts strewn in every nook and cranny of Whitehall?  But then I thought, “What about my old closet (and closeted) drama ‘The King’s Favorite,’ now collecting dust and cobwebs?”

King Charles II, attributed to Thomas Hawker.  Oil on canvas, circa 1680.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.

Being a frugal writer of scholarly books and articles, I hated wasting anything I found valuable from my research.  Therefore, I would send smaller pieces to the likes of Notes & Queries, The Scriblerian, and Restoration.  Because I carried over that frugality to my novel writing, I decided to use the play and the title for my novel about the period.  But I needed more by way of a plot to flesh out the work.  Accordingly, I chose to expand the plot by using a plot—against Charles II’s life.  But a fictional attempt on the king’s life wouldn’t be enough to involve all the central characters, I concluded.  I needed something else—something juicier than a mere assassination scheme.  “Think,” I said, “what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word ‘Restoration’?”  Well, I hesitated not a whit in coming up with the answer–SEX.  With that ingredient thrown into the mix, I was ready to write.

Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (ca 1641-1709) c. 1663-65.  By Sir Peter Lely.  Oil on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust, UK.

The book opens with the discovery of the king’s most recent favorite, the lovely Elizabeth Keller (fictional), lying dead in one of the bedrooms at Whitehall.  So we commence with the “who-done-it” and “why-was-it-done” right off the bat.  The book doesn’t lack for suspects—one being the notorious and irrepressible Lady Castlemaine, who has long been a subject of fascination to me.  Without sounding too démodé, she tops the list of historical women I’d like to have a private cup of tea with in the darkest corner of Whitehall.  As for Nell Gwynn, she heads the category of historical women with whom I’d most like to drink beer at a ball-game.  Placing the spotlight on Charles, Nell, and Barbara especially was a delight, and I included as much historical accuracy as possible, even quoting what they actually said or what others said they actually said.  The fictional women characters are in my most humble opinion also captivating and intriguing.  The reader might also find enjoyable the appearances of Rochester and Frances Stuart—as well as the fictional males with their dastardly colluding and conniving.  (My SEASECS friends—female and male–can wonder if I modeled any of the characters on them).

In addition to publishing work on Wycherley, Dryden, Pepys, Cibber, Garrick, and Sheridan, my love of and experiences in the theater demanded that I write into the novel a number of scenes set at the Kings Theatre.  Here I was forced to give Tom Killigrew the old heave-ho and replace him with a fictional character involved in the comings and goings of the plots.  But actual actors and actresses are mentioned and/or discussed (some substantially) by the characters, as are some forty other historical persons—from Peter Lely and the Duke of York to Queen Catherine and Louise de Kérouaille.

I decided on a date for the events of the novel (later autumn of 1670) and since I realized I wouldn’t be able to find a time when all I wished to depict would be perfectly accurate, I pulled out my artistic license—saw that it was still valid—and “bent” a few months this way and that to make everything fit.  For example, I slightly delayed Barbara’s elevation to the title of Duchess of Cleveland.  As for the speeches and meetings I created, they were also shaped by our knowledge of the events of that year and the historical Charles, Barbara, and Nell.  I was furthermore determined in my fictional dialogue to advance the spirit of wit that we find so darn appealing in the period.

In short, it was a most enjoyable project—one that proved the non-adage, “You can take the boy out of the scholarly pasture (through retirement), but you can’t take that pasture out of the boy.”  The odors are just too enticing to close one’s nose to.