Does fiction make discoveries about the world we live in? Can it test alternatives, produce knowledge about the unknown, weigh hypotheses? This course will consider a range of poets, novelists, and authors of short fiction who answered, “yes!” These writers incorporated the techniques and insights of modern science – new theories of mind, of nature, of the universe itself – and set out to prove that writing could be a kind of science, too.
This seminar will delve into the rich tradition of empirical literature – literary works that incorporated the theories and methods of contemporary science – that explores how humans work and how nature functions. These experiments in literature produced a wildly exotic mix of fiction and poetry, from Poe’s thrilling accounts of the edge of the known world, to modern classics like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Along the way, these writers interrogated the role of fiction and language in the practice of science, and the relationship between objectivity, interrogation, and introspection. Using a variety of perspectives, from Romantic theories of sensation, to nineteenth-century theories of mind, to theoretical physics, we will examine how literature can model formal experimentation. In addition to the weekly seminars, the class will involve several brief essays.
Readings may include works by John Milton, Erasmus Darwin, Charlotte Smith, Percy Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, Kurt Vonnegut, and Primo Levi.
Theoretical readings will be drawn from Linnaeus, Burke, Percy Shelley, Alexander Bain, Émile Zola, Stephen Hawking, Evelyn Fox Keller, Daston and Gallison, Bruno Latour, and Gillian Beer.