MLA15 Special Session Proposal on Teaching Transatlanticism

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    Tyler S. Branson

    Sandra Zagarell, “Americans, Abroad: A Transatlantic Literature Course Generates a New Reading of Portrait of a Lady”
    Marie Martinez, “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Contagion”
    Jennifer Phegley, “Teaching Transatlantic Sensations”

    Panel Title:
    Teaching 19th-Century Transatlanticism: New Configurations and Curricula

    The first Norton Anthology of English Literature was issued in 1962, the first Norton Anthology of American Literature in 1979; both textbooks constructed and recirculated cultural sites of memory that assumed the evidently self-contained, separate literary traditions of distinct nations. In the 1990s, however, nascent transatlantic studies quickened with the publication of the late Susan Manning’s The Puritan-Provincial Vision: Scottish and American Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1990), which asserted a distinctive transatlantic Anglophone literature; the subsequent appearance of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (1993), which excavated an Atlantic culture drawing all at once from African, American, British, and Caribbean exponents; and the founding of Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations (1997), which provided a forum for historical and theoretical criticism from within a principally American studies framework. Today departments increasingly reach beyond nation-based literary traditions, and presses such as Ashgate and Edinburgh University Press feature transatlantic series. Scholars initially trained in American or British studies increasingly research the texts, bodies, ships, and cultural practices that circulated across the Atlantic basin in the 19th century.

    The front line of a new transatlantic cultural memory that answers to the material circulations of the 19th century is the classroom. Yet since most faculty charged with teaching transatlanticism continue to be trained principally in American or British studies, constructing transatlantic pedagogies remains highly exploratory and contingent. In keeping with the 2015 conference theme and with the benefits of providing a forum for faculty and graduate students to consider how they can create new transatlantic curricula, we propose a special session entitled “Teaching 19th-Century Transatlanticism: New Configurations and Curricula.” All session participants, including 3 senior professors (1 trained as an Americanist, two as British specialists) and an ABD graduate student, are veterans of transatlantic classrooms and will present curricular innovations and their results before opening discussion to those attending. We propose fifteen-minute presentations to enable maximum time for discussion with the audience.

    Although Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady has long been taken as an expression of the “international theme” (Americans’ vulnerability to “Europeans”), Sandra Zagarell will demonstrate that teaching it in a transatlantic English/American literature course called attention to the outsider/within standpoint which informs it—that of an American who lived in Europe and had a piercingly queer eye for all socio-cultural arrangement. In this novel he trained that eye on genteel postbellum Americans freed up by being “abroad” to engage in various forms of self-fashioning. She will discuss Portrait’s exposé of the characters’ inadvertent displays of an Americanness most seek to disavow as they try to transform themselves into cosmopolitans. (One such element is their reliance on what she terms synecdochal thinking, or assuming that knowing “types” of “Europeans” provides them easy epistemological command over various European cultures, an assumption which proves deleterious for most.) This critique is cross-cut by Portrait’s own very American faith in Isabel Archer’s Emersonian capacity for self-knowledge and growth. The ramifications for her class included recognizing how unself-consciously national are Bleak House’s critiques of England and Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s critique of the US and how deftly novelist Frank Webb leveraged his England-based outsider/within standpoint to expose the geopolitically specific constituents of race in America.

    Marie Martinez offers a perspective on transatlanticism’s reconfigured curricula as both a graduate student and creator of a new transatlantic course for undergraduate nonmajors. At the start of Fall 2010 she considered herself a Victorianist. But the graduate seminar in 19th-century transatlanticism she then took has had a lasting impact on her pedagogy. Marie merged her interests in nineteenth-century disease and transatlantic studies for her introductory literature course entitled “19th-century Contagion.” A transatlantic approach enhanced her course, since the concept of contagion exposes the uncertainty/permeability of all kinds of perceived borders— our bodies, nations, communities, and even our minds. The 19th century, moreover, was a time of upheaval and rapid political, economic, social, and literary change. Perceptions of contagion, panic, and the fear of the unknown are inflected in the literature. Yet that which spreads is not always negative—whether emotion, conviction, or information. Students read Mary Barton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children” alongside Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s “The Tenth of January” to see how they imagine and represent contagion, both literal and metaphorical, and connect with each other. A transatlantic approach bridged gaps in history and gave students a more global perspective as they came to see writers and texts participating in transatlantic conversations with mutual concerns, fears, and ideas.

    Victorianist Jennifer Phegley co-taught transatlantic sensation fiction with an Americanist colleague in fall 2008. She will present an overview of the course—including its successes and misfires—and discuss why sensationalism as a genre is a particularly rich subject for a transatlantic and collaborative approach to teaching nineteenth-century literature. American sensationalism is usually seen as peaking in the 1840s, with the massive popularity of the city-mysteries and urban-gothic novels of George Lippard and others. The English sensation novel, on the other hand, is often said to begin in the 1860s with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Scholars rarely acknowledge that the genre was not confined to a particular decade or nation. Studying sensation fiction transatlantically enables classrooms to trace the genre’s development through reciprocal literary exchanges over the course of the century. And students acquire valuable new ways of understanding the interconnected world of nineteenth-century reading, writing, and publishing, especially with the availability of digitized nineteenth-century periodicals. A transatlantic framework shifts from a microscopic examination of individual texts within distinct national literary traditions and cultural memory toward a telescopic view of cultural practices, authorial identities, publication systems, and literary exchanges across national boundaries.

    Together, all three papers will suggest how teachers can negotiate and expand sites of cultural memory in the transatlantic classroom.

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