This post is part of the “Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures” series, a collaborative endeavor by NGSC bloggers Deven Parker, Grace Rexroth, and Conny Fasshauer, all Romanticist graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drawing on our collective experiences organizing guest lectures at our university, our aim for this series to offer advice and tips for NGSC readers hosting visitors at their institutions or attending one of these events. See Grace’s post on transportation as a networking opportunity, and Conny’s post on making the most of the guest’s visit.
Hosting visiting scholars for talks or seminars at your institution can be a wonderful thing. As many NGSC bloggers have recently discussed – like Jacob Leveton in his post about the importance of community building – forming scholarly networks beyond your university not only leads to new friendships but also to opportunities to receive support and guidance in your scholarly endeavors beyond your usual advisors. If you’re a regular reader or contributor to the NGSC blog, I’m sure I don’t need to further extol the benefits of extra-institutional support networks and friendships. That being said, as my contribution to this collaborative series, I’ll discuss the concrete logistics of hosting guests for talks and workshops. Continue reading A Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures, I: The Planning Process→
Editing is the bane of my existence. It’s monotonous. It’s time consuming. It’s well, hard. Choosing what words and sentences to amend or even eliminate often feels like butchering your own children. But what happens when you are entrusted with someone else’s baby? Acting in an official editing position in any capacity, be it for a manuscript, article, or publication of any kind, is an honor and a privilege—albeit a terrifying one.
Maybe you are one of the lucky ones, and taking out a red pen or sitting with a large cup of coffee at your computer with thousands of words waiting for the guillotine of your keystroke is an exciting task, not a daunting one. Bless you. Despite my undergraduate degree in journalism and years spent as a school newspaper editor, I still struggle with copy editing. But I am trying to change. Continue reading Join the Red Pen Society: an argument for copy editing→
One of the great advantages we have as scholars is the opportunity to form communities beyond our institutions — not just at annual conferences in remote locales, but also in ongoing conversations on the web. These online communities are fora for scholarly dialogue and informal queries, requests for crowdfunding special projects and historical sites, and repositories of archival material. Here’s a brief roundup of selected sites, listservs, and communities available to Romanticists (and if you know of more, please get in touch!).
(1) NASSR List — the list of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (subscription required). The list is frequented by many major scholars in the field, but also graduate students and junior faculty; this is a particularly excellent resource for answers to obscure and arcane historical questions, and for links to major awards and opportunities in the field. Continue reading Romantic Web Communities→
Emily, Laura, and Arden are three graduate students who share interests in Romantic medical science and anatomy. We illustrate our contrasting methods in responding to this article (“Corpses and Copyrights”), which discusses the history of dissection in England through pictures of a medical textbook, William Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, or A New Administration of the Muscles (London, 1724) and legal issues with respect to both bodies and texts as shared properties. The article celebrates the connections between literary and medical fields through its focus on Laurence Sterne’s body-snatched corpse, and the rediscovery of his anatomized skull in the 1960s. In this collaborative post, we each respond to the question: how can our distinctive approach cast new light on such a text? Within the specific field of dissection, we focus on different approaches and questions with respect to the imaginative work of illustration and fiction to depict the body, the power of the body (and its parts) as an object and artifact, and the gendered nature of dissection and the spectacle it created.
Laura Kremmel is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University, specializing in Gothic literature, particularly in the Romantic period, but with teaching interests across all manifestations of the Gothic. Her dissertation considers Gothic literature in the context of medical theory and the Gothic’s imaginative ability to experiment with the limits of those theories and offer literary alternatives. She has also published on zombies and is currently developing an online class on ghosts and technology.
Emily Zarka is a PhD student in Romanticism at Arizona State University focusing on gender and sexuality studies and representations of the undead in the period. She is interested in tracing the literary history of horror monsters from the modern period, and exploring the different ways in which men and women write about and reflect on the undead. Emily has given public talks on why zombies matter, and has an upcoming publication exploring the undead in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dacre.
Arden Hegele is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, with a dissertation focusing on Romantic medicine and literary method. Her most recent work explores Wordsworth and Keats’s hermeneutic engagement with post-Revolutionary techniques of human dissection, and she will soon be teaching a self-designed course about Frankenstein.
I love the ideas brought up in this article that conflate the actual bodies on the dissection table and the bodies depicted in the illustrations, and I’m most interested in the aspects of this comparison that get left out in able to make that conflation possible. What immediately strikes me about medical images of the eighteenth century is the sterility of the body and the cleanliness of it, which would not be an accurate depiction of the body on the dissection table: we’re missing all the fluids and the deformity of decay that would have made the body an object of repulsion and abjection. These “ugly” aspects worried Dr. Robert Knox (of Burke and Hare fame), who was disgusted by the interior of the body and thought that seeing it would actually ruin an artist’s sense of beauty (Helen MacDonald writes about this in her book, Human Remains (2006)). In his Great Artists and Great Anatomists (1825), Knox pleads with the artist to always draw a dead arm next to a living arm in order to preserve a division between the dead body as an object of disgust and the beauty of the living. Earlier, in the introduction to his Atlas of Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus,” William Hunter explains that there are two ways to illustrate the cadaver: to draw it exactly as it is shown, thus accurately reproducing one single body, OR to draw it taking into consideration all of the other bodies you have seen, thus producing an informed idealization of the body. Hunter himself claims that he much prefers this second, more imaginative method of depicting anatomy.
Thus, the illustrations take on the ability to fictionalize the body to some extent, prioritizing a style that would serve a pedagogical purpose, if not a realist one. It emphasizes the act of seeing the body, but only seeing the right kind of body. The same is true for preparations made of the body, and John Hunter is famous for making thousands of these: isolated and “prepared” parts of the bodies that would become preserved for the purpose of teaching anatomy (and, indeed, to carry on the idea of the body as property and commodity, unique preparations and parts of the body were a common gift to and from physicians). This is also the way in which fiction plays with ideas of the body, uninhibited by the limits of current medical knowledge. Physicians understood the essential role of the dissected body for understanding anatomy, but physiognomy remained somewhat in the shadows: without opening a living body, it was difficult to grasp how it worked. Thus, they were frustrated by exactly the distinction to which Knox refers. The Gothic is particularly interested in the interior of the body–a large part of which produces fear and shock–and it has an ability to stretch the limits of the body, both living and dead, in ways medicine could not. Writers like Matthew Lewis took the opposite approach to most medical illustrations, embracing the abject body and all its dripping, oozing effects, exploring new ways for the body to function in the process, expanding ideas of vitalism, circulation, and digestion.
Many writers of the Gothic were physicians themselves or close to medical thought, such as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron (close to John Polidori), and dramatist Joanna Baillie (niece of John and William Hunter and brother of Matthew Baillie, who spearheaded an interested in autopsy). The underlying principles of dissection are inherent in many of these works, especially the emphasis on empirical observation of the body in order to understand it. Much critical work has been written about Baillie’s play De Monfort (1798), which ends by displaying two bodies side-by-side (a murderer and his victim) in a type of moral autopsy. The murderer, De Monfort, had been so affected by seeing the corpse of the man he killed that it drove him mad and caused his death. In cases like this, the emphasis on seeing the body, whether on the dissection table, the illustration, or the stage, enters into other areas, such as commercial gain (as the article explains), as well as justice.
What I find compelling in this article is the emphasis on body-snatching as a way of experiencing a privileged intimacy with a literary legend: here, the act of dissection becomes a physical method for the exegesis of both a literary body and a body of work. As “Corpses and Copyrights” describes, Sterne’s body was taken from his grave and recognized as being the author’s by students in the autopsy theatre. This particular grave-robbery of a literary lion was, apparently, a chance one, prompted by the medical school’s need for demonstrational corpses. As Keats’s hospital training confirms, most corpses for autopsy in the Romantic period were indeed procured by body-snatchers, who were paid off by Sir Astley Cooper and other major surgical instructors. And, since some European medical schools guaranteed their students 500 bodies annually, odds were good that students would eventually identify their “Man in the Pan.”
But, with the disinterred shade of Shakespeare’s Yorick hanging over Sterne’s corpus (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, Horatio”), we do have to wonder about Sterne’s actual disinterment as serving a more deliberate purpose. As Colin Dickey’s book Cranioklepty (2010) discusses, the purposeful body-snatching of artists was surprisingly prevalent during the Romantic Century. Other artists suffered similar fates to Sterne’s: Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart’s skulls were reportedly stolen from their graves by admirers (in Mozart’s case, since he was buried in a pauper’s grave, the future thief placed a wire around his neck before burial to help identify him later); in 1817, a malformed skull reported to be Swedenborg’s was offered up for sale in England; Schiller’s skull was mounted by a noble friend in a glass case in a library in 1826; and Sir Thomas Browne’s skull entered the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital Museum in 1848. More familiarly, the physical tokens of the Romantic poets continued to circulate after their deaths: Shelley’s heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and preserved in wine, while (in spite of his request to “let not my body be hacked”), Byron’s autopsy was published, his internal organs were scattered throughout Europe, and his corpse was disinterred in 1938 and lewdly examined in the family crypt. Even now, the Keats-Shelley house at Rome boasts various physical relics of the poets, including locks of their hair.
Why were (and are) Romantic artists’ dissected bodies so fascinating? For me, the anatomizing of Sterne’s skull, which bears marks of abrasions from medical implements, reflects on an important moment in the advances of surgical dissection and autopsy at the end of the eighteenth century, as the parts of the dissected literary body became relics for reanimative reading. Though Sterne’s dissection might be coming out of the anatomy in a satirical tradition (like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy ), as Helen Deutsch describes in Loving Dr Johnson (2005), at the end of the eighteenth century, the autopsy of a literary giant could bring the reader into an intimate encounter with the truths of his or her body, and even offer a kind of memorializing reanimation. In the case of Johnson, the Preface to the 1784 published account of his postmortem (“Dr Johnson in the Flesh”) described the corpse as “a work of art” that was still “of importance to his friends and acquaintances,” and the postmortem text is positioned as a way for the bereaved Johnsonian to reanimate the body through a deep encounter with its fragmented parts. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) picks up the same language of reanimation through dissection: the directly reported records of Johnson’s speech allow the reader to “see him live,” in contrast to other biographies “in which there is literally no Life.” For Deutsch, this is part of a broader eighteenth-century trend of sentimental dissection: the body of the eponymous heroine in Clarissa (1748), for instance, is “opened and embalmed,” and Lovelace promises to keep her heart, which is stored in spirits, “never out of my sight.” (The real-life corollary of this is perhaps the circuitous journey of Percy Shelley’s heart, the “Cor Cordium” acting as postmortem metonym for the poet’s self). For the Romantics, insight into a fragmented body part seems to have had a reanimating quality for the whole body, and, as I think about it in my dissertation, I find links between medical dissection of human bodies, and practices of excisional close reading of organic literary forms, during the Romantic period.
Upon examining these illustrations and the accompanying article, I was immediately struck by the gendered implications, namely the differences between male and female dissection and how those acts were illustrated. The article claims that “Usually, the bodies used were those of criminals or heretics – predominantly males in other words. The occasional dissection of a woman, it being a public event, attracted large numbers of spectators by the prospect of the exposure of female organ.” Given the ideas of the time that the female body was somehow more sacred or special because of the presumed virtue of the female sex, it does not seem unsurprising that the male body would be more readily violated after death in such a way. However, the connotations of penetration from the scalpels, forceps, and other tools of dissection seem relevant here especially because they all were wielded by a masculine hand. These sharp blades and other disruptive instruments separated, cut and otherwise maimed flesh in an extremely intimate way. When this was occurring with male corpses, there are of course homoerotic undertones, but what really seems relevant is how this violation of phallic metallic apparatuses was deemed taboo except in rare cases. This might in part explain the public audience that attended female dissections as suggested above. Not only was flesh usually hidden promised to be revealed, but the feminine body was in death capable of being poked and prodded in ways living human males could only dream of. The intimacy of such an act becomes fetish as the public gathers to watch the male scientist push the scalpel further and further into the most intimate areas of a woman’s body.
The framing images displayed in “Corpses and Copyrights” appear to validate the theory that even dead bodies were gendered and sexualized in traditional ways. The first image of the series is the front view of a beautiful, naked woman accompanied by props and scenery reminiscent of Neoclassical art and the Grecian and Roman sources that movement drew its inspiration from (see the Roman copy of Praxiteles’ Venus). The only two places marked on this woman’s body are the breasts (A) and vagina (B), highlighting the parts of her body directly associated with sex and reproduction. We can assume that those areas were meant to be detailed one another page in their segmented, dissected form; when the sex separates from the body and becomes an object of its own. Detaching the female form from the person it belongs to would hardly be considered shocking given the culture of the time. The final image in the illustrative series is another woman (possibly the same one, but with a different artistic arrangement), only this time is is her backside that is drawn and marked. Here the letters adorning her body are more numerous, with areas such as the spine, calves and shoulders given special attention in addition to her bottom. I am fascinated by the artists decision to show only a complete female form, although I am not surprised. To me it suggests not only that the female body, at least in its intact form, is considered more beautiful, but that again the connections between sex and death dominate.
Additionally, the “corpse as commodity” idea challenges the idea of death as escape for men and women alike. For in a culture where women were considered property of men both theoretically and legally, death might be a release from such patriarchal control, albeit in an extremely morbid way. As “Corpses and Copyrights” asserts, “the body was not regarded as property” once dead, and therefore the female could finally be free from her masters, at least in theory. The value given to corpses and prevalence of grave robbing for medical and scientific purposes perverts this supposed freedom by once again giving monetary value to the body, and as the popularity of public female dissections suggests, yet again makes the female form a more rare and valuable object to possess. All of which proves that during the period, nothing could be separated from the politics of patriarchy and gender.
Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith’s article, “Writing a Book Together,” featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, documents their experience working on Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870 across the disciplines and across several states. Page and Smith explain that from the beginning, they had two objectives: To bring together the disciplines of art history and English, and to find a topic that would yoke their “mutual love of gardening.” These two goals resulted in their brilliant argument, that “gardens provided women with a new language and authority to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world,” while it simultaneously “offered expanded possibilities that re-centered domesticity outward” (2).
Page and Smith’s friendship is partially rooted in gardening. In fact, one of Page’s first memories of their friendship is planting her first vegetable garden with Smith and her children. “Our children were also friends,” Page says. “They grew up together and thought of her as a second mother, so it made sense for us to want to do a book together.” In this way, Page and Smith’s book is more than a well-researched, fascinating study of women and gardens; it is a carefully constructed document between friends.
How did you initially meet?
We met each other as faculty members at a small liberal arts college, Millsaps College, where Elise still teaches. I taught for a long time until I moved to the University of Florida. I loved the kind of collaborations that can occur at a liberal arts college because you really are very connected to people in other departments […] We became good friends and realized that we shared a lot of interests. At first, we actually team taught together. […] We taught a couple classes on images of women in art and literature. We went from very early images through the twentieth century and mostly focused on European art.
It was a big change for the two of us because although we already had a lot of teaching experience, at that point, it was always just us in our own classes, me, as an art historian, and her, as a literary historian. […] Thinking about women was the baseline for what brought us together from our various fields. Those courses were such fun to teach. I think it was marvelous for the students to have a way to see alternative perspectives, not just in what they read, but in seeing us with our different viewpoints there in the classroom. That really helped later when we came up with this idea of writing a book together. It was an important foundation for us in terms of thinking collaboratively.
How was this project similar to or different from your other collaborative processes?
I would say that the project is different from the collaborative project of teaching together because when you teach a course together, you have to sit down and shape the course and perhaps make changes as you go along. When you’re writing a book together, you really have to read the work, collaborate, change it, revise for each other, and we found that process worked really well. People joked with us and said, “You’re such close friends. Are you still friends after writing a book together?”
How did you come up with your idea?
I think it moved from that very early amorphous images of women to something that was much more specifically grounded in the garden and what we might be able to do with that […] I don’t remember what actually sparked the initial idea except our love for the garden and our interest in writing a feminist piece on the garden and our interest in women artists and writers, so it all just came together. […] This was after I had left Millsaps. I’ve been at the University of Florida for 13 years. We both had finished book projects. I had finished my book on Romanticism and Judaism and she had finished a book on the Victorian painter, Evelyn De Morgan, which was her first piece of work in the 19th century.
One of the advantages of us not living in the same town anymore is that we’ve got a lot of emails that relate to the project. One dates back to August, 2003. I had written Judy an email at 1:16 in the morning. I started by saying that I had been trying to get to sleep and just wasn’t able to because my mind was full of thoughts about this book that we had begun to think about. Initially, we had been thinking very broadly and loosely about something relating to gardens and landscape issues in the 19th century.
In this middle of the night email that I sent to Judy, I was sort of moaning about this article that I was working on about Gainsborough […] and I said what was really getting me a lot more excited was the thought of working with her on 19th century women gardeners or rather women and gardens, since some of the women might not necessarily be gardeners themselves […] She responded that same night at 2:51 AM, which is kind of bizarre. And she said, “This is so strange because I’m sleepless in Gainesville and decided to get up with hot milk, dry cereal, and a computer check. I love the idea of focusing on women and gardens although we might find that pushing back in the 19th century could be interesting too.”
The time framing of the book—that may have been one of the hardest things for us to figure out, because, of course, there was only a certain amount that we could do. But, any time we got ourselves a tentative beginning and ending date, one of us would kind of stretch an elbow out and say “Oh, but you know, if we just go ten years further or ten years earlier, I could include such and such.” It really was not until late in the writing process that we finally settled on the framing device that we had. I think it was, in part, some of the frustration that both of us felt at having to leave out some of the later 19th century stuff that got us going on our second project that we’re working on now.
Can you tell us more about working between the disciplines? Within “Writing a Book Together,” you touch upon the clash of verb tenses and working together to achieve a seamless writing voice–a “we” rather than an “I”. What were some of your other struggles or victories? How did you approach them?
We found it a very congenial process and almost always took each other’s criticism and felt that it was right. We’re coming from different disciplines. Elise is a trained art historian. I’m trained, of course, in English. […] There really were some funny moments in sharing our work where we would see different conventions that would guide us. For instance, in my previous books that were not collaborations with Elise, I had illustrations, and some of the illustrations were what she might consider to be decorative. In other words, I did not engage the illustration in the text. Elise’s ground rule was if you have an illustration in the book, you have to engage with it in the text. Of all the 75+, or however many it turned out, nothing was just gratuitous. We talked about each one of them. There was a purpose for having them. That is something that I really had not thought about before. When I wrote my book about Wordsworth and women, I had illustrative illustrations […] and I didn’t necessarily engage them. […] Some of the pictures of the home places I did talk about, but I didn’t have such a strict guideline that I was working with. I liked it. It makes a lot of sense and it’s a good way to justify the illustrations to your publisher.
I was also particularly concerned about being sure that we incorporated images in all of the chapters, not just in the chapters that I was working on, and that we incorporated them in what I thought was a substantive rather than a relatively cursory or merely illustrative way. I wanted significant analysis as much as possible to be done with all of the images, rather than just having them there as an illustration on the page.
There was that issue, and another one, which I also think is a disciplinary difference that we had. I’ll give you an example: I am the primary author of the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. That chapter had even more in it when I first shared it with Elise that was very speculative about Dorothy Wordsworth and her relationship to her brother. Elise wanted evidence. […] On what grounds are you making this statement? What can you point to? What evidence is there? I took it out when it was purely speculative and I didn’t really have the evidence. I worked according to that and I think it was good for me. It certainly made our writing more compatible because she is devoted to really careful scholarship and all of her evidence and references are very precise. It was a good discipline for me to have that because I think that we, as literature scholars, perhaps tend to have more flights of fancy and things that we can’t absolutely justify [with hard evidence], but that we still think we’re right.
Can you tell us more about your collaborative process?
We were collaborating from the very beginning. As soon as we would write a chapter, we would share the chapter. We agreed from the outset that each of us would write four chapters. The book has eight chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. One of us drafted the introduction—I did—and one of us drafted the conclusion. Then, we each revised them, so they were all truly collaborative.
I also think that our voice is pretty close. […] Maybe someone who analyzed the chapters with some kind of technological program could tell there are certain ticks or ways of writing that are distinctive, but I think we’re actually quite close in our writing styles and I think that it made for a greater harmony in terms of the voice.
We assigned ourselves key chapters to draft up and then we would send that draft to the other person. I’d send my draft to Judy and would get all kinds of responses from her and vice versa. Often, something that I might have been working on, for example, related to images, I realized didn’t really fit in my chapter anymore but could easily fit into one of Judy’s chapters as additional visual material […] or a literary passage could really fit well into one of my chapters, so that worked well in the later stages of drafting.
We were also both committed to the “we”. We were committed to writing the book together, so it was something that we accepted. I know at one point, Elise said, “I feel really funny using the word “we” in the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. It’s so clearly your chapter. You’re the Wordsworth scholar.” There were moments like that where we both chuckled a little, but even the chapters […] where one obviously wrote more of that chapter than the other, at the end of our process, we ended up taking some things out of one chapter and putting it in another with no regard for who wrote the chapter originally. I would say our process, if I had to have a metaphor for what it was like, was like making a quilt. We got the parts, we thought of the chapters, and then we pieced things together in them, so it’s quilt making, if you think of quilt making as an organic process.
In your book, you mention collected specimens, exotic flowers, and how “the microscope suggested a hidden life rich with possibility and meaning” (58-9). If we consider female botanists collectors, can we compare them to famous male botanist and collector, James Banks? Could they be following his example, set in 1771, when he returned from Captain James Cook’s first voyage to South America with samples in tow?
Some of the women that we wrote about, for example, Agnes Ibbetson, who is a very accomplished botanist, did have an interesting system of categorizing and collecting in that sense, but we didn’t find this grand design of women as collectors in the sense of Banks or some of those great collectors and adventurers. […] It’s almost a kind of gendered distinction. Male adventurers have a strong desire to conquer and collect and to bring it all back as a part of the empire and put it on display in Kew and other gardens in Britain.
We found less of that in women writers and artists. We found more of an interest in teaching that a lot of this knowledge goes into an educational function […] That educational interest that is very strong, so that you find women who have great knowledge of different parts of the botanical world. That knowledge takes the form of dialogues between mothers and children and various kinds of scenes of instruction in books, so that the botanical knowledge is often put toward that kind of advancement of intellect.
That said, I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, which was published a couple of months ago. The main character is a woman botanist who has an amazing collection of moss and becomes an incredible expert. I was fascinated by the portrayal of this character not just because she was a collector and wanted to get to the heart of it, but because of what she saw when she studied the moss really closely under the microscope. Gilbert’s character demonstrated this notion that we see in Chapter Two, this discovery of this interior world, an amazing world that was represented when you could actually see into the life of this species, this plant. I think there was this sense of wonder in the world. A lot of women botanists write about wonder, often putting it in a religious perspective too.
Interesting! You discuss the garden as a liminal space of education and exploration, especially for girls before they become women. Did the garden have the same erotic connotations as other well known liminal spaces of education and exploration, such as boarding schools?
We do indeed focus on the garden as a place of exploration and education, a place where women and girls can extend their sense of themselves. […]The garden for both men and women always has this erotic charge. It makes me think about the Garden of Eden and all of those kinds of metaphors that go with that. The book is not comprehensive and we didn’t talk a lot about that, but if I had added another chapter, […] I would’ve loved to talk about writers in that context—one of them is Austen. I did a paper for the Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice that just came out last year on the landscapes and estates and gardens. One of the things I talk about there is not the garden narrowly defined as a garden per se, but certainly the outdoor space and the outdoor world in Austen’s novels is a place of freedom. It’s a place where many of the really important scenes and activities take place and discussions between characters that are highly charged and couldn’t take place in the drawing room. They take place out of doors.
Think about the moment in Emma, at the end of the book, where Emma is described as hurrying into the shrubbery. She’s overcome in that moment. She’s recognized that, “I’ve loved Mr. Knightley all along—Harriet can’t have him because I love him!” And she’s pacing the garden, the shrubbery. In that moment, Mr. Knightley appears. That moment can only take place out of doors. It’s highly erotic, and Austen handles it so beautifully.
I think that you can particularly see erotic fears perhaps most prominently and ironically in children’s literature–this fear of the children escaping past the wall and the kind of punishment, the literal and metaphorical fall, that these children might have if they climb up on top of the wall. And, of course, the idea of the fall takes on so much resonance symbolically. That could be read as sexual metaphor. I have not made that explicit in the chapter that I wrote, but I think it’s a really neat way of thinking further about that work.
We describe this in the beginning of the book that we use the term garden very fully and loosely and we take in botanical writings, landscape, and a whole range of ways that people can engage with the natural environment in the book.
Can you tell us more about your next project?
We decided that we loved writing this book together so much that we’re going to write one more book together. […] If critical books could have a sequel, I suppose it’s a sequel. […] What we found looking at the later 19th century is that if in this earlier period, we talked about the way that so many women writers and artists negotiate their relationship between the public and private, in the newer project, one of the things we talk about is an increasing professionalization of the way that women writers and artists talk about the garden, the garden as a potential profession. If women were amateur gardeners in the 19th century, and many of them did move into professional garden writing […] at the end of the 19th century, you have women thinking of themselves as professional writers, professional gardeners, and that there’s a kind of conjunction between women and the garden and women who worked in the city, New Women, if you will. The whole notion of the New Woman fits into this.
Some of the figures, for instance, that I’m interested in, begin to write important gardening histories. They see themselves as historians of what has taken place in the garden not only over the last century, but going back for many centuries. […] There are examples of women who have university educations and see themselves as historians of the garden. We’re going to look at some of those writers.
Mostly, I’m working on the time between the very tail end of the 19th century through World War I. That’s where most of my stuff is leading right now. […] I’ve drafted a chapter on garden memoirs written by women who were gardeners themselves and were really thinking about how to create a space for themselves outside of the city. The city/country dichotomy is very important because many of these women travelled back and forth between their country retreat and the city. In fact, I’ll be giving a talk at the 19th Century Studies Association in Chicago in March, which is a conference centered on the city in the 19th century. I’ll be talking about these women in the country and the way in which they contrasted what they valued about their lives in the country, in their gardens, as opposed to what they saw as really problematic about the city, the noise, the dirt, and also the city as standing for some of the violence that they associated with the war torn years.
One of these garden memoirists wrote in defining this contrast between the city and the country, “Asphalt or turf? Pose or repose?” She was referring to the idea of the pose, the sort of artifice of the poseur life in London, as opposed to being able to let that all go when one is rooted in the countryside. That was a lot of fun for me to write. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the women before, but very few other people now have heard of them either. As an art historian, I’m finding myself pulled into text based writing and text based image making, because there is very little imagery involved as I dig into these memoirs and write about them. My other chapter, so far, is about an artist from the Bloomsbury group who knew Virginia Woolf. Her name is Dora Carrington. She was working in the 1910s and ‘20s before she committed suicide. She did a lot of paintings of the land around the three homes that she lived in. One was her childhood home and two were houses that she lived in with the Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey. I argue that these landscapes that she painted are really a way of attempting to make a psychological home base for herself because of the way she felt increasingly removed from friends and lovers, and even the actual homes themselves, which she didn’t own. […] She was afraid of being a hanger-on with Lytton Strachey. […] My next chapter will be on children’s stories and illustrations centered around Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, but I will also look into other children’s books written by women that deal with children in the garden in some way, which will be an extension from the chapter that I wrote about children’s literature in the last book. I’m not sure what my fourth chapter will be. That is sort of giving you an indication of how Judy and I are feeling our way into what we might want to write about.
I’m very interested in figures like Beatrix Potter and Vita Sackville-West, women who saw themselves in terms of a kind of mission that they had to revitalize the English landscape. Beatrix Potter is an example of someone who is best known as a children’s author. She wrote the Peter Rabbit books that we all grew up on. However, after she wrote the Peter Rabbit books and settled in the Lake District, she became a conservationist and someone who dedicated her life to the restoration of the countryside. […] Sackville-West wrote books where the garden features very importantly, but she also developed and designed with her husband and then worked in one of the most important gardens of the 20th century, Sissinghurst, which is still regarded as one of the great gardens in England. I’ll be looking at what the relationship between her life as an actual gardener and what she wrote about her gardening life. In this project, we’re also going to be very interested in looking at the effect of the First World War, but we’re going to take it through the Second World War and the effect of the war on the sense of the landscape, the place of the garden in the landscape, and women’s relationship to it in particular. One of the things that developed during the First World War is the Women’s Land Army, and women increasingly took the place of men as workers on the land as men were drafted into the army. Many of those women became committed to those skills and to that life, even after the war. Looking at those kinds of changes in how women contributed to the land and the landscape during the war years is something that we’re going to be very interested in.
Do you have any advice for scholars interested in collaborative work?
I would say that productive collaborations arise from shared interests and passions, and when each contributor brings a different knowledge or disciplinary perspective to the mix. Once you get going on the collaboration, think of it like other relationships that always require give and take—and compromise.
I think my main advice would be that you have to give up turf possession. That’s a good metaphor to use when we’re talking about gardening. You have to give up the sense of, “Oh, I’m an art historian, and thus what I write has to be situated in art history.” I learned long ago by coming to Millsaps and being the only art historian here for many years, to give up turf ownership of any particular period in art history because I teach from ancient all the way up to contemporary. […] Now, by working with Judy collaboratively, I’ve had to broaden out beyond being just an art historian to being a thinker about the world, open to all kinds of questions, and then following those questions to whatever kind of evidence might come to bear on those questions. I think about texts as well as images. That advice is important advice for any scholar in whatever field, whatever they’re doing – go where the questions lead you.
Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.
Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?
Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.
Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?
Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.
Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?
Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.
But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).
The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that
“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)
In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.
Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?
Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.
Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).
At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.
Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?
Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).
But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.
What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.
Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).
Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/), the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (http://lacma.org/Lab), and the CERN Artist’s Residency (http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide), to name only a few art and science collaborations.
To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.
The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”
At what cost does the land stop becoming land? I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape. Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.
I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?
Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)
Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)
Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)
Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)
Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)
Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.
I think this post dovetails quite nicely off the previous one and its discussion of the Digital Humanities. We are all pursuing graduate study during a time of great transition and change. Technological advances have allowed scholars to broaden their scope. The term “distant reading” is gaining more and more traction as databases and new research tools allow us to map continuity and change more precisely over greater periods of time.
One of the opportunities that technology facilitates, however, has received slightly less attention: collaboration. I am currently working on a collaborative article with colleague of mine and thought it may be useful to share my experience with the NASSR community.
Last week I spent a considerable amount of time editing a draft version of the article. We have been having Google Docs parties on a regular basis for several weeks now. We are able to see the changes each of us makes as well as have a quick little chat alongside the document in a handy dandy side bar. As a bit of a technological dunce, this all amazes me.
In the past, scholars in the humanities have collaborated in order to examine longer periods of time. This is indeed true for myself. My colleague specializes in the long eighteenth – century and I am, of course, a card – carrying Romanticist. We have both made use of the databases and research tools available to us. Therefore, technology has broadened both of our individual scopes and in turn lead to a project that is very ambitious.
Spend Time With Someone Who Thinks Differently Than You
Over the course of my career, I have been accused of burrowing into texts; I love me some close – reading. Naturally, beginning to think of ways of entering scholarly discourse and writing a dissertation that A) is relevant B) engages numerous texts required some significant adjustments. I am still learning the best ways to combine my intense interest in individual texts with larger trends / questions / queries.
My esteemed colleague, coincidentally, thinks in broad and ambitious ways. He asks questions not in terms of texts or authors but tropes / genres / representation. Having regular conversations with such a thinker and being asked to use specific texts in order to talk about these larger categories has been immensely productive for me. Likewise, engaging with a fiercely intense close – reader has made my colleague more aware of certain nuances in literary works. Also, I am pleased to say, my dissertation has benefited greatly from my collaborative endeavors.
Collaboration Saves Time
With the demands that coursework, dissertation writing / research, teaching, reading groups, outside jobs, and crime – fighting make on our time, we Romanticists are left with little to spare. Oftentimes we turn to coursework essays or our dissertations for potential publications. This only makes sense: those documents say much about our interests and methodology. However, writing an article with someone else broadens those interests while also requiring a reasonable amount of time. Writing an article on the side may seem impossible to an individual. Writing an article with a colleague allows you to divide and conquer. Whether you find, like me, that those pesky and often contested period boundaries provide a convenient way to find a partner in arms or you grab someone inside your period with a different set of interests, collaboration allows you to enter the scholarly fray for half the anxiety.
Good For The Old C V
How many times have you claimed that you enjoy working with others? If you are like me, the answer is 27. A collaborative piece of writing allows potential employers to see that you not only like working with others, you actually have! What we do is by nature incredibly isolating. The group of authors we have chosen to focus on make that isolation seem oh so sexy and cool. However, Wordsworth and Coleridge worked together, Shelley “dosed” Byron with some Wordsworth, Blake “spoke to” Milton, and even Keats had Joseph Severn. I am just saying, that without collaboration, Wordsworth would not be able to put Lyrical Ballads on his poetic C V.
The NASSR conference is fast approaching, and I (alas) won’t be able to attend. So, for purely selfish reasons, I am collaborating with Kirstyn Leuner to create a proceedings for the 2011 NASSR conference on GoogleDocs. If you want to help contribute to the proceedings, please join us! We simply ask that those of you who go to NASSR take notes at the panels you attend and upload those notes to GoogleDocs. Hopefully, the end product will be a set of notes from all (or most) of the panels at NASSR. I’m planning on collecting the proceedings into a document that we could possibly propose to an online publishing platform like George Mason University’s PressForward.
Collaborative Proceedings have a long history at unconferences, for example the increasingly famous THATCamp regularly publishes notes on their sessions. Proceedings are a great way to archive conversations at conferences and to share information with people, like me, who aren’t able to attend. I’d also like to invite anyone who wants to participate in a Twitter backchannel for the NASSR2011 conference to simply use the hashtag #nassr2011. Despite my absence, I’d like to contribute to the conversations emerging from NASSR, and feel that many people (academic, non-academic, and alternate academic) would love to be part of the 2011 conference.
If you have any questions or any suggestions on how to organize the graduate student, postdoctoral, and professorial attendees to help collaborate on the 2011 proceedings, please let us know in the comments section or email myself (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Kirstyn (email@example.com). Should we, for example, set up a wiki for people to sign up for particular panels? Would it be better to see what emerges organically when several attendees decide to collaborate on the proceedings? We are open to suggestions.
Two years ago, NGSCers met to discuss possible topics for our in-utero blog. The idea of “reimagining the conference” from a graduate student’s point of view was raised by both Jill Heydt-Stevenson, our intrepid faculty advisor, and Scott Hagele, former co-chair. At that time, I had not yet heard of THATcamp (The Humanities and Technology camp), which does precisely this for the digital humanities. My goal in this post is to introduce THATcamp and juggle the idea of a BritLitCamp: a British Literature unconference.
First a major disclaimer: I’ve never been to a THATcamp in person. However, the backchannel (i.e., Twitter stream found by searching for #thatcamp) for the most recent unconference held at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason Univ., June 3-5, was as lively as a Boulder hippie drum circle at dusk. Participants tweeted non-stop about topics under discussion, photos, questions, and links to blog posts and collaborative note-taking in googledocs. I had no trouble following along from my desk and tweeting with participants, which just made me want to be there. Visit Mark Sample’s archive of #thatcamp tweets that he created using TwapperKeeper to read the tweets for yourself! (Make coffee first.)
So, what I know about THATcamp is comprised entirely of what I’ve read online and heard in brief descriptions from Johanna Drucker, Lori Emerson, Laura Mandell, and other DHers. My understanding is that THATcamp is meant to complement traditional academic conference formats and outcomes. It is a small, collaborative gathering of cross-disciplinary and cross-professional attendees (scholars, librarians, students, and non-academics of all stripes including programmers, business professionals, etc.). The agenda for the gathering is established by all the participants not a year in advance, but at the meeting: at CHNM this was done by writing session ideas on blank pages, taping them all to a wall, and voting for sessions by placing colored stickers on them. The sessions with the most stickers go on a schedule made then and there. Also, all attendees are active participants in each session — far more so than the format of paper delivery to an audience of listeners or even a roundtable. Thatcamp.org has a very helpful About page for more information, as well as a definition of an “unconference.”
In his post on ProfHacker, Brian Croxall says that one of the things he loves most about THATcamp is its call for “more hack and less yak”:
“You’re encouraged to come out of sessions having done or made something concrete. In some cases, what you make might be a list of ways to improve a backchannel or a collaboratively written set of notes about project management. In other cases, you might finish a session having built a WordPress theme from scratch. Whether you believe that digital humanities depends on building things or not, it can be tremendously exciting to feel as though you’ve completed a project (or several) in one day…especially compared to how slow progress can often feel when you are writing.”
What Would a British Literature Unconference Look Like?
Revved up by the exciting tweets, notes, and ideas being shared on the twitter thatcamp backchannel, I began tweeting about the idea of a Romantic unconference (RomantiCamp?) with Roger Whitson, a Romanticist who works at Georgia Tech and studies Blake. Several THATcamp tweeps, ranging from 18th c. to Victorians, and from literature to history scholars, joined the conversation on twitter and together we created a collaborative googledoc of what a British Literature camp (BritLitCamp? BritCamp?) might look like. [Feel free to add to the document — your suggestions are most welcome!]
The googledoc expresses a lot of ways that a THATcamp-like event might create a new kind of forum for discussions of British literature and scholarship in our field: one that is more participatory, informal, and bent on learning skill sets and producing. It also expresses the concern that the academic literary conference model and literary scholarship really do go hand-in-hand. In other words, one of the things that THATcamp does so well (it seems, through my Twitter lens) is hold workshops that enable participants to learn and practice new skills right there–whether they are programming skills, communication skills, like Mark Sample’s session on Building a Better Backchannel, or project management skills. In literature, the “making” is usually research and writing, and as we all know, they are long and slow processes. The slow and often solo process of researching and writing essays leads to the solo presentation of a work-in-progress 20 minute paper to an audience of listeners. If it’s ingrained in our literary academic discipline to write and present this way, will a new kind of gathering that focuses on collaboration and “doing” work for our field? A number of THATcampers thought so.
To Chew On
Here are some of the suggestions from the collaborative googledoc that seem as though they might work for a BritLitCamp. They are quoted verbatim from the collaborative doc, so there are a number of authors voicing ideas and questions here:
“include more than 1 or 2 literary or historical periods at one conference to encourage maximum ability to move between periods and learn about a wider range of topics.”
“Hack British History and Literature. What does that mean? Less discussion, more doing.
– maybe a collaborative zotero site with great teaching resources
– or a centralized repository of 18c student projects/videos/etc–as a student-centered way of avoiding/complementing the research paper”
“Research discussions should be in the form of “dork shorts” (limited to 2 minute introduction of topic). These are read during lunch on the second day.”
“Question the privilege of the thesis statement or argument. Privilege the question.
– these are all great ideas–I like the dork shorts/lightning talk idea, which would naturally privilege something other than thesis–the question, the data. Putting ideas on the web, too, would be a great way to seek out collaborators. Use http://www.eighteenthcentury.org/ to house them?”
“create a collaborative document of the session, make public–true collaborative authorship. venue for this, after the fact?”
“collaborative sessions would be possible if there were readings in common that participants had a chance to do ahead of time. This would require session preliminary planning before attendees arrived — at least selection of works, but perhaps focus could be decided by attendees at the event.”
“Lit conferences rarely teach practical skills for how to do stuff. This seems to be one of the things that THATcamp does well. What then does a Lit-camp session do?
exchange project ideas
Distant Reading/Cultural Analytics
Digital Apps for Literary/Historical Study
see earlier question about porting results info to chartable formats (from 17c-18c newspapers online, etc; if content itself is behind a paywall, what about just the numbers of hits? a browser plugin? @howet)
great visual, audio, video texts for use with X (see earlier notes re: themed/selected readings–integrate?)
Introduce text encoding
Forms of social tagging w/sources.
pair works across literary periods
pair unexpected works for classroom exploration of general topics”
Where to Now?
Do you have more ideas for imagining a British Literature unconference? What further concerns or issues can we raise? Contribute to the discussion with comments or just add anonymously to the googledoc.