We Other Victorians? Historicism, Presentism, and the Endless Nineteenth Century
A strange fact worth acknowledging: to the Victorians we owe our field. Before them, no modern literary studies in English at the university level. Indeed, nineteenth-century writers were the first to speak of "literature" in its current sense. The disciplinary divisions they drew remain present in the structure of academic institutions and in the scholarly work we do; so too does their ideal of professionalism and the peculiar morality they attached to vocation. Not least among our debts to the nineteenth century, for better or for worse, is a certain fidelity to historicism and to the notion of periods. The organization of the field and its methods attest to that commitment. To what extent, then, can we historicize historicism? Can we do so while recognizing that we still dwell—conceptually, materially, and geopolitically—in a world forged by the nineteenth century? How might our situatedness in the present, and in the particular context of the early twenty-first century U.S., enter critically rather than inadvertently into the way we read Victorian literature and history now? What conflicting historicisms confront each other in literary studies today, and what alternatives to historicism seem desirable or practicable? This graduate seminar will provide an introduction to Victorian studies while attending to methodological debates about periodicity, the place of the present, and related concerns in and beyond the study of the nineteenth century. We will read fiction, poetry, and essays by Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, Wilde, Tennyson, Arnold, Ruskin, and others, as well as criticism and theory from Marx to Nietzsche to Foucault to Said and from Steven Marcus to Sharon Marcus.