Updating the Nineteenth Century

November 30, 2011

Michael Gilmore, my old colleague at Brandeis, used to teach a lecture course on nineteenth-century American literature, with 100 students every year.   I used to teach one with 50 students. That seemed a very long time ago.  Michael – Timo – is still teaching his, with  much smaller enrollment; mine was retired a while back.

And that’s such a familiar story: all across the country nineteenth-century American literature is falling by the wayside.  The field seems remote and unsexy; even those charged with teaching it are fed up with cheerleading for something so moribund (Faulkner’s word: another bad sign).

So I have to pinch myself when the cheerleading is coming from the other side, literally in this case — from Canada.  Sarina Isenberg (a graduate student at Queens University, present at the McGill event) is working on the Dial, a magazine published from 1840 to 1844, edited by Margaret Fuller, with Emerson and Thoreau as frequent contributors, and giving a lot of space to translations, to European politics and Eastern religions.  Sarina is especially interested in a column called “Ethnical literature” (I’d always thought it was called “Ethical literature” – no, it’s ETHNICAL literature, she corrected me!)   The last person to discuss this column at length was Arthur Christy, who got his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia, and published The Orient in American Transcendentalism in 1932.  In the 1940s he began editing an anthology called World Literature, but died suddenly; the project was completed by Henry W. Wells.  Sarina would like to bring out a new, annotated edition.  She sent me an email with long quotes from it, including this one from the introduction: “We shall come to realize more clearly than ever before that our civilization has always been composite–a growth fertilized from many lands and races–and that in future it is certain by greatly accelerated degrees to become even more a synthesis.”

What can I say?  Emerson, newly introduced to the science of statistics, says that, “it would not be safe to say when a captain like Bonaparte, a singer like Jenny Lind, or a navigator like Bowditch would be born in Boston; but, on a population of twenty or two hundred millions, something like accuracy may be had.”  I pray that, in a population smaller than that – ten thousand, maybe – there would be a Sarina Isenberg.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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