Almost every popular fictional genre we consume today – detective novel, spy thriller, ghost story, treasure hunt, imperial romance, invasion scenario, monster tale, science fiction, true crime narrative – has roots in the late Victorian period. During the boom years of 1880-1910, all of these genres took on a recognizably modern form. And those forms have been astonishingly durable; they continue to dominate the popular imagination. This course is designed to investigate several key texts in those emerging blockbuster genres as well as their contemporary adaptations in order to figure out why Victorian Action Heroes still exert so much cultural force. As we go, we will track both the modernization and the Americanization of plots that were conceived and codified in the twilight of Britain’s global influence.
The seminar takes a cue from Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), and we will begin our inquiry there. What veins of cultural memory and narrative desire are tapped in Moore’s revival of Captain Nemo, Mina Murray, Sherlock Holmes, and Allen Quatermain? With that query in mind, we will then read and discuss the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, Baroness Orczy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Buchan.
In the last third of the semester, we will explore post-1945 American adaptations of Victorian action plots. Students will play an active role in setting the group readings and screenings during this phase; they will also conduct substantial independent research on a cluster of texts, films, or other media with obvious neo-Victorian elements. During the semester, I plan to use guided critical readings to train participants in the analysis of popular culture. Collectively we will work to a) generate a map of key primary and secondary works in the neo-Victorian field, including steampunk and other contemporary modes; b) broaden the gender base of our primary materials with more women’s writing; and c) develop plausible accounts of the political and social meanings that have adhered to pulp fictions drawn from a volcanic epoch in the history of British popular culture.
Course requirements will include active weekly participation (including reading journals), a short essay (1500 words), and a long independent research paper (5000 words).