How much history?

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At CUNY, a New York state public university where I teach an introductory course in literature and writing, undergraduates like thinking about power. Their material disadvantages make social critique come naturally. Knowing this and wanting to get them hooked, I present Romantic literature as an early expression of dissatisfaction with social processes and conventions, a perspective to be developed later by Marx. This semester, I threw Jane Austen into the mix, and oriented reading and discussions of Persuasion around questions of social class. We spent a lot of time discussing the historical attributes of Austen’s class system that seem strange to modern sensibilities: the phenomenon of rank, the marriage between cash and land, the ambiguous category of the “gentleman” and the expanding mercantile economy.

I’ve found that, as a general rule, students want to learn about class conflict only to then formulate utopian arguments in their papers. Take the example of Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. Widowed, crippled and in debt, she is a childhood friend of the heroine Anne Elliot.  Her story exemplifies the ease with which one can fall as well as rise in an increasingly speculative economy. But students are consistently drawn to Anne Elliot’s humanizing observation that, despite her misfortune, Mrs. Smith is constitutionally blessed with “that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself.” They use Mrs. Smith to support their arguments that wealth, rank and social ornaments do not reliably align with the moral and spiritual attributes that really matter. This is good general wisdom that I would hesitate to qualify. But a careful reader will note that there are rarely innocents in Austen’s social world.

Turning again to Mrs. Smith, one might note that her end game is to find a man willing to help her legally regain her West Indian property, which is surely a slave plantation. The gallant Captain Wentworth finally does this service for Mrs. Smith and her return to respectability is premised on a banal plundering of the profits of slave labor all the way across the Atlantic. If it feels liberating to note that Mrs. Smith’s fallen social status does not fully define her, it’s less liberating to acknowledge that she functions just as distinctly as a reminder of metropolitan subjects’ dependency on the commodification and forced labor of slaves. Even the stoically heroic widow is complicit in the brutal and inhumane systems of slavery. Austen’s thinking about the moral compromises that must be made for domestic “felicity” are in Persuasion as bleak as in any of her other novels.

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After Persuasion, I assigned The History of Mary Prince, a transcribed autobiographical account of the life of a West Indian ex-slave in exile in England. My original justification for this was to give students a “different perspective” on nascent capitalism than Jane Austen could offer.  Perhaps because The History is full of scenes of spectacular suffering, I found it difficult to teach the text without returning over and over again to impersonal facts and schemas—the “scientific” racism of Edward Long that aligned people of African descent with animals, the differences between metropolitan and colonial law, the legal controversies over escaped slaves in England, and the long 26 year gap between the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slavery in the British Caribbean. While I sought to impress upon my students the importance of these discursive and institutional contexts, they wanted to talk about Mary Prince’s essential humanity, her willingness to forgive her series of cruel masters. They were once again taken in by the sentimental rhetoric.

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The question that has been on my mind now that the semester is over is: how central should history—facts as well as philosophies of history—be to our teaching of literature in intro and survey courses? Do students need a timeline of important dates in the political battle against slavery to understand Romantic literature? I present historical facts as a way to get students to see that reading literature is about more than deciding whether or not the main character is likeable. I want them to experience reading as estrangement, to see that the challenge lies in finding ways to engage social and cultural moments different from their own.  And this seems necessary in a course for non-majors where the value of reading literature remains for many an open question. But is this the best strategy? Why not dwell with literature’s power to render the complex, even life-like, effects of human experience?

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When I told a friend that I was teaching The History of Mary Prince by loading my students up with information about the legal and economic history of slavery, he responded, “it’s not our job to teach history—our students should be learning that stuff in their other classes.” Perhaps there is something to this. But, as I write this post, our conversation calls to mind the conflict between “critics” devoted to instilling in their audience a love for the wonders of literature and “scholars” more interested in advancing the specialized field of philology. Gerald Graff influentially describes this tension in Professing Literature, where he argues that the categories of critic and scholar were central to debates within the academy about why we study literature.

Though the  critic vs. scholar dichotomy is artificial (like most dichotomies), the contemporary debate between Simon Jarvis and Yopie Prins on the subject of “historical poetics” is a reminder that disagreements between those that would foreground the formal and rhetorical effects of the text and those that would foreground historical mediation—questions of biography and textual history—remain as heated as ever. Perhaps I’ll try to figure out how to teach this dispute in future. Hopefully this may be a way to validate students’ admiration of texts’ humanizing powers while helping them to see that there are other ways of responding to what we read.

Note: see Talia Vestri Croan’s post on this site for more on teaching Austen.

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