Eighteenth-Century Anglophone Literature and Culture
The twenty-first century’s complex matrix of forces that we now call globalization had an earlier incarnation in the eighteenth-century cultural exchanges that sent ideas, goods, and bodies—free and unfree—across national boundaries and vast oceans. As Britain established colonial rule over new territories and populations, other peoples from Ireland to the Americas increasingly demanded economic, political, and social justice from the Britons who ruled them. Eighteenth-century transatlantic culture yoked Europe, England, the Americas, and Africa in a complicated network of social, political, cultural, and economic relationships. Predating the debates about democracy, the free market, and human rights that dominate current discussions of globalization, writers and intellectuals of the eighteenth-century transatlantic world questioned how the Enlightenment’s philosophical commitment to personal liberty related to the burgeoning women’s rights movement, the abolition of slavery, the plight of the poor, the status of indigenous peoples, and the treatment of immigrant populations who were moving in increasing numbers across the Atlantic. The century culminated in a series of revolutions—the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution—that led many to believe that society could be radically re-invented.
A new hire whose research is grounded in Anglophone literature of the eighteenth century would be able to explore the connections between eighteenth-century political and social revolutions and the period’s literary innovations. Indeed, the “great tradition” of “English” literature is paradoxically populated with writers from colonized nations—Swift, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Boswell, Hume, Burke, Burns, Edgeworth, Scott—whose complex and often compromised positions generated some of our most searing indictments of social injustice as well as powerful visions of more just societies. Eighteenth-century writers mobilized satire to indict the great and powerful; American captivity narratives, themselves indebted to British seduction tales, helped transform the genre of the novel into a form capable of social critique and often committed to social change; the Anglophone theater both depicted the period’s social upheavals and sought to direct or change their course. Eighteenth-century residents of the Empire’s margins—Irish, Scots, American, African, black, white, and native—participated in debates over the meaning of the Enlightenment with establishment intellectuals by reading and responding to their texts: by doing so, they joined an unprecedented transnational circulation of ideas and texts that precipitated new ways of imagining human society and new modes of imaginative literature.
The Seventeenth-Century Revolutions: Economic, Social, Gender
Seventeenth-century England "planted" (or maintained) colonies around the globe -- in its own backyard, in Africa, in the New World. It also established extensive trade networks that circulated goods -- and men and women, free and enslaved -- among peripheries and center. This unprecedented expansion abroad took place while, at home, England experienced a series of political, social, and religious transformations that led to civil war, the execution of Charles I, and a short "experiment" in republican government (and a military dictatorship). The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 failed to resolve these crises: a fractured religious community divided visibly into Anglicans, dissenters, and sectarians and a political system divided for the first time into parties spawned numerous plots against the government, frequent and severe repression, and, by century's end, battles between monarch and parliament that led to the expulsion of another monarch and a welcome invasion by a Protestant line that still, today, rules Great Britain. These political and social crises produced writers whose intellectual ambitions and rhetorical power have secured their representations of a more just and equitable society -- revolutionary accounts of economic justice, social transformation, gender equality -- a permanent place in ongoing debates about social justice.
We are looking for a colleague who would explore how the literature of this period participates in these revolutionary re-imaginings of society. Powerful poets and dramatists, including John Milton, Aphra Behn, and John Dryden, publishing alongside less well-known men and women, debated the very meaning of justice, liberty, and political authority. The collapse of censorship during the civil war enabled a dizzying proliferation of pamphlets, poetry, and drama that proposed radical and often utopian reorganizations of society: redistributing property, enfranchising all men and all women, leveling social distinctions, ensuring religious freedom. In the period's literature, persistent arguments about women's "nature" were countered by social-constructionist claims ("Education's, more than Nature's fools") that reimagined women's rights and possibilities. And, of course, encounters with the many "others" with whom Britons traded, and whom, increasingly, they governed or enslaved, forever transformed not only seventeenth-century Britain's sense of self but also its awareness of its responsibilities to others.
Victorian Literature and Culture: Age of Empire and Reform
An era of intense social and literary ferment, the Victorian Age is a watershed cultural moment in strides for social justice, and thus an essential piece of our developing Literature and Social Justice Initiative. During Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), England—already an active player in the colonization of the non-European world—ascended to a position of unprecedented global dominance. By 1890, more than one-fourth of all the territory on the surface of the earth flew the flag of the British Empire. Britons’ encounters with other cultures posed a range of intercultural ethical issues—for example, the necessity of war to sustain the economy, the use of labor and natural resources abroad to support the British lifestyle, the struggle between cultures in "contact zones" around the globe, and the challenges inherent in running the largest merchant fleet in the world.
In the midst of these complex and shifting social conditions, literary and aesthetic innovation flourished. A new hire in this area would investigate the relationships among literary production, aesthetics, new media and technology, social action, and the ethical challenges of an expanding empire. One can trace the impact of empire in the many Orientialist moments in the enormous numbers of novels published in this era. Similarly, many essayists reconsidered architectural as well as literary aesthetics in light of the nationalism that accompanied an expanding worldview. Whereas some histories of India and of Ireland by pro-Empire writers influenced British colonial policies, other authors responded critically to British colonization. Travel narratives offered eye witness accounts of the expanding empire, while narratives by immigrants to England from India, the slave colonies, and elsewhere offer important and varied perspectives on what it means to "become" English and to produce art and literature under conditions of empire.
In addition to these major cultural conflicts, expansions, and transitions on a global level, England experienced vast changes during the nineteenth century, which heightened earlier inequalities and which were exposed in the socially conscious novels, poetry, and essays of the era. England’s painful transition into the world’s first industrialized society ultimately inspired both social movements to protect increasingly vulnerable groups as well as major parliamentary reform. Indeed, the Victorian Age is characterized by the great number of significant legislative reforms that emerged: abolition of slavery in the colonies, extension of the franchise to middle-class and later working-class males, increase of free trade, reform of labor conditions (especially in factories and mines and especially for women and children), sanitation, movements toward a national education system, new Poor Law legislation, and gains in women’s right to own property, petition for divorce, retain custody of their children, and seek university educations. At the same time, major scientific theories such as those articulated by Charles Darwin challenged basic assumptions of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Major technical innovations radically changed daily life, including steam-run looms, printing presses, and combines, as well as the telegraph, intercontinental cable, photography, and anesthetics. Most important for our departmental focus, these social and intellectual advances and upheavals produced writers who shaped our enduring understanding of economic justice, gender equality, public education, aesthetics, and democracy.
Post-1945 American Literature
The second half of the twentieth century was a period of dramatic transformation in the United States. In the decades after 1945, many movements for social justice emerged, which articulated bold new political visions and played an important role in remaking the social order. The modern Civil Rights movement challenged institutionalized racial discrimination and segregation. Second-wave feminism called for an end to gender inequality and sought nothing less than an emancipatory rethinking of gender roles and power-relations. An unparalleled movement for gay liberation called for justice for sexual minorities and has contributed to a wide-ranging revolution in American attitudes towards sexual freedom and diversity. In response to the war in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race, modern peace movements have challenged the ideology and practice of militarism in an era in which the United States emerged as a superpower and global hegemon. Powerful anti-poverty campaigns were institutionalized in the 1970s as a government sponsored War on Poverty, which then gave way as the United States became the industrialized world’s most economically inequitable society. Waves of immigration have stirred up new forms of xenophobia in the twenty-first century, as they have earlier in the nation’s history, and also new movements to protect immigrant rights. The rise of modern environmentalism has raised consciousness about a global crisis in the relationship between human beings and the natural world and has created bold new visions of sustainable development and environmental justice.
A new hire in this area would add a faculty member whose teaching and research would focus on the ways in which emergent conceptions of social justice since 1945 have shaped, and been shaped by, contemporary literary practice in the United States. An unparalleled democratization of American literature took place during these decades, as previously marginalized groups of all kinds gained access to higher education and to the media of self-representation. New literary canons emerged with remarkable rapidity in fields such as Jewish American, Asian American, and Hispanic/Latina/Latino writing, as well as queer studies. Writers in these emergent traditions have challenged existing power-relations and have provided glimpses into surprising utopian possibilities. At a formal level, the representational strategies associated with the term postmodernism have enabled American writers to make sense of a world in which human experience seemed ever more dominated by mass culture. These new literary practices reflect complex efforts to imagine the nature of individual and collective agency in an era of bewildering globalization. The poems, plays and stories of the contemporary era have much to teach us about the inequities of our society and about fuller, more humane ways of living.