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.
Professor Ramesh Mallipeddi’s course, ‘slavery and eighteenth-century literature,’ which I took a year ago, was an opportunity to consider questions central to slavery studies: What is the role of the critic in relation to the archive of slavery, where there are very few accounts of slave experience written by slaves themselves? Did the affective politics of sympathy actually ameliorate the suffering of slaves or did sentimental rhetoric simply validate the metropolitan observer? What was obscured and what was accomplished in abolitionist efforts to intervene in the slave trade and to reform plantation discipline? What role did slaves themselves play in articulating their losses and mobilizing against the institutions of racial slavery? Professor Mallipeddi tackles these questions among others in his book Spectacular Suffering: Witnessing Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic, which has just come out. Continue reading ‘Spectacular Suffering’: A Reading Recommendation