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What was Victorian Studies?

ENGL 753.401
crosslisted as: COML 753
instructor(s):
Tuesday 9-12:00pm

If job listings are anything to go by, Victorian studies is extinct—for better or for worse. The field, meanwhile, is at its liveliest even or especially as scholars of nineteenth-century literature debate the rubric “Victorian" or our own relationship to the sum of cultural relations it seems to name, planetary in imperial scope but centered (often a bit too cosily) in the British Isles. Those debates matter to the field’s self-definition and to what we teach, but the term has already been largely replaced in practice by “the nineteenth century” on various national, imperial, and transnational scales. Whether the goal is to preserve what remains useful in it or to consign it to oblivion, is it time to ask what was Victorian studies? What motivated an interdisciplinary field of literary, pop-cultural, and social-historical scholarship to form around the idea of Victorian culture as “a whole way of life,” and what is gained or lost by shifting to “the nineteenth century” with different periodization or in a comparative framework? Thinking about the era and its theories of itself as well as about the different historical conditions that made it such an intriguing object of study in the postwar U.S. in particular, and reflecting on both from the vantage point of the Brexit moment when “Victorian” has become a catchword for the heroic nationalist fantasies of Jacob Rees-Mogg and others, how might we understand the field in the crosscurrents among these moments? Does the regnal term draw arbitrary boundaries around literary history, or does it name a meaningful cultural and historical formation worth studying either for its particularity or as transhistorical heuristic for some principle of structure repeatedly disavowed as past (recall Foucault’s “We ‘Other Victorians'”) or prescribed to the present (Himmelfarb’s “Victorian Virtues”)? In this seminar, we will consider those questions and the changing shapes of the field as we read fiction by Dickens, Collins, and Eliot, life-writing by Mary Seacole, poetry by E.B.B. and Tennyson, and criticism and social theory by Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Marx, Margaret Oliphant, Walter Pater, Virginia Woolf, and C.L.R. James, along with scholarship by F. R. Leavis, Walter Houghton, Raymond Williams, George Levine, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Edward Said, Nancy Armstrong, Lauren Goodlad, Daniel Hack, Lisa Lowe, Anna Kornbluh, Nasser Mufti, Devin Griffiths, Sarah Allison, and others.