Recent Seminars

Fall 2016: The Long History of Victorian Realism [graduate]

An investigation into the long British century, from roughly 1850 to 1970, in which realism dwindled from fiction’s major mode to a self-consciously minor one—a dwindling, however, in which a current of Victorian realism did not give way to modernism but was instead culvetted beneath it, running uninterrupted through the postwar decades. This realist style— anti-reformist, anti-experimental, anti-sympathetic, stubbornly ordinary in its language— was the enduring mark of Victorian fiction on later generations of novelists. A style of description without revelation, and satire without theses, it emerged as a meditation on historical stasis, compromise, and limitation at the same time as it was increasingly identified with women and dissident sexualities. We will ask how to study the long survival of an aesthetic mode, and how an aesthetic mode registers its own minoritization. Novels to be selected from among a list that includes Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Trollope, Oliphant, Gissing, Forster, Bennett, Orwell, Sayers, Compton-Burnett, West, Powell, Pym, Spark, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, Penelope Fitzgerald; to be accompanied by theoretical and critical readings in the long history of reconsiderations of realism, from G. H. Lewes to Fredric Jameson, as well as readings from Benjamin, Klein, Sloterdijk.

Spring 2016: How We Read Victorian Serial Fiction Now [graduate]

A (necessarily abbreviated) workshop in reading (for) serial form at the moment— roughly from the late 1830s to the 1870s—when serialized fiction dominated the literary marketplace. The seminar’s operating premise is that the Victorian serial novel has never seemed both more antique (insofar as it reflects a cultural centrality of the novel that is rapidly waning) and yet also more modern (in a media landscape in which serial narrative captures ever more attention and prestige from bounded forms like the contemporary novel or the film); furthermore, that the critical tools necessary for understanding how Victorian serial fiction worked have been underdeveloped, ever since early formalism, following Henry James, and early cultural study, following F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, described it as aesthetically and socially disastrous. The seminar’s primary inquiries will be into the material facts of how serial fiction was made and disseminated, the cultural significance it was felt to have, and the formal techniques writers developed to work within serialization, such as suspense or uncertainty as an epistemological issue, and multiplot structures— the famous overpopulation of Victorian social fiction— as an ontological issue.  In the process the seminar will collectively think through the methodological options available today for the study of serial fiction, including methods taken from the history of the book, affect theory, media theory, quantitative work performed under the umbrella of the ‘digital humanities,’ and the so-called ‘new formalism.’  Novels to include examples from Thackeray, Gaskell, Eliot, Trollope, as well as the foundational example of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.

Fall 2014: The Novel of Manners

A study of the novelistic genre, in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and the US, that centers on the vexed relation between individual consciousness and social behavior, particularly as revealed by the small customary norms known as “manners.”  How manners express, encode, inhibit, or produce things like social conflict, ethics, and desire will be our theme.  We will also give special attention to manners as a crucial cultural battleground between aristocratic status and bourgeois striving: not just the details of eating, dress, gesture, and speech, in other words, but also how those details tell the story of modern subjectivity.  Novels to be selected from among Austen, Gaskell, Trollope, Meredith, James, Wharton, Forster, Waugh, Pym, Hollinghurst; supplementary reading from Trilling, Geertz, Douglas, Goffman, Elias, Bourdieu, and others; likely attention to at least one cinematic example, such as Renoir’s La règle du jeu.

Spring 2014: The Bildungsroman in Europe

A survey of major works in the tradition of the European Bildungsroman, from what is traditionally taken as its founding example (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) to early 20th-century revisions to the genre.  The seminar’s primary goal is to chart the ways in which these novels imagined, or refused to imagine, a compromise between individual aspiration and social integration.  Subsidiary topics will include: the negotiation of erotic energies; the role of the nation-state in promoting or hindering individual ‘development’; professionalism and selfhood; the relationship between economic, social, and geographical mobility; the characteristic spaces of the form (family; school; ‘bohemia’); alternatives to the form required by the consideration of women.

Spring 2012: The Theory of the Novel in the 18th and 19th Centuries [graduate]

A reading-intensive seminar concentrating on a body of writing that has been little read and studied, however well-known some of its instances might be: the genre-theory of the novel during the period of its supposed ‘rise’ in Britain and western Europe (the eighteenth century) and its eventual dominance in literary and print culture (the nineteenth century).  Commonly assumed to be a twentieth-century phenomenon, arising with Henry James’s prefaces and then lodging securely in the academy, novel theory had already produced a vibrant and complex tradition by 1900, and as such we will end, rather than begin, with James’s influential aesthetics of fiction.  Our focus will be on some of the central categories through which this body of theory engaged the novel: its interest in the techniques, and ethics, of mimesis; its attempt to account for both the “novelty” of the novel as well as its links to a much older history of prose romance; its analysis of the place of everyday life, or the prosaic, within the form; its understanding of how the conditions of print culture— literacy, the print market, the materiality of serials and books— shaped the form; its continual emphasis on the modes of novel reading, such as engrossment, sympathetic identification, and reverie.  Alongside these texts, and as a way to ground and test their concepts, we will read five pivotal examples of the genre, by Fielding, Goethe, Balzac, Eliot, and James.

Fall 2011: Realism

An examination of the realist novel in its major period (1720-1900) and the origins of the realist vision. What constitutes “the real,” and for what purposes is “realism” employed? What understandings of science, and what kinds of political or social aspirations, underwrote the attempt to give narrative art the qualities of accuracy, transparency, contemporaneity, even evidentiary value? What significant differences existed between British and French understandings of realism, and why did those differences persist?  Novelists to be selected from among Defoe, Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, Eliot, Trollope, Gissing; major critical and theoretical statements by the Goncourts, Maupassant, James, Auerbach, Lukács, Barthes, Jakobson, Jameson, and others.

Spring 2010: Eliot and Trollope [graduate]

The two major British novelists between the death of Dickens and the rise to prominence of Hardy.  Often contrasted— the intellectually omnivorous and morally profound, if formally sloppy, Eliot versus the parochial and narrow-minded, if technically skilled, Trollope— they share more fictional terrain, and technique, than is commonly acknowledged.  We will explore them both as examples of what the Novel could do in the mid-nineteenth century, and as test cases for a primarily formalist reading of fiction.  Our approach will depart from the historicist or contextualist readings so prominent in recent decades in order to ask: what if history was not our master discourse?  What would a reading of Victorian fiction informed by new versions of formal inquiry, and supplemented by a range of philosophical concerns, look like?  Some topics to be addressed include: the issue of knowledge and proximity (how close do we need to be to know best), and its relation to narration; conceptions of decision, moral agency, and character; life inside and outside of institutions (including the institution of fiction itself).  Both Trollope and Eliot will be read, in short, as novelists interested in describing, with different kinds of precision, the intersection between individual will and processes larger than the individual—an intersection not necessarily dependent on any specific Victorian context.

Recent Lectures

Fall 2015: The Nineteenth-Century European Novel

The European novel in the era of its cultural dominance.  Key concerns: the modern metropolis (London, Paris, St. Petersburg); the figures of bourgeois narrative (the parvenu, the adulterer, the adolescent, the consumer) and bourgeois consciousness (nostalgia, ressentiment, sentimentalism, ennui); subjectivity and its relation to class tactics, labor, money, and social upheaval; the impact of journalism, science, economics.  Works by Goethe, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola.

Fall 2013: Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot

A survey of the three mid-Victorian novelists most ambitious in their attempts to represent society as a complex, interactive whole. Representative fictions— Vanity Fair, Little Dorrit, Middlemarch— will be read alongside lesser-known works.  Our emphasis: how these novels imagine the possible shapes of human interaction and human self-consciousness in a society governed above all not by family, or nation, or religion, but by money and its exchange.  We will therefore be looking at these novelists as, in the largest sense, the storytellers of capitalism, intent on finding the right combination of themes and formal means by which to express the shape of the world capitalism creates.


Remarks upon acceptance of the 2013 Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching, awarded by the Columbia College Academic Awards Committee