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The Futures of Eighteenth-Century Studies

Paula Backscheider

Teaching eighteenth-century literature has never been easy, and it certainly is not going to become more so. There’s the language, especially for the period before 1740, and it has always seemed to me to require the most interdisciplinary knowledge and skills of any period. Politics, economics, social issues, historical events, legal change, medical advances, the arts, and philosophical currents, some from other countries such as France and the Netherlands, are routinely mentioned or discussed in depth in every kind of literature from belle letters to chapbooks, and we have to be conversant with them. However, a great attraction of the literature is that it was written in a time when people thought literature and printed texts mattered and actually impacted the world and the people around them.

We are used to these challenges and opportunities, and we are used to the one I consider most threatening: keeping our classrooms filled with students. Surveys continue to tell us that more professors have more experience with every other literary period than the long eighteenth. As I do, I’m sure everyone still gets students whose teachers have simply skipped the period in the survey course or taught nothing but A Modest Proposal while conveying such knowledge as “Aphra Behn was a slut, and so were the other popular women writers” and “Swift married Stella.” And so my best advice to protect the future of eighteenth-century studies is to seize the sophomore survey, whichever half it’s in, and teach all of the texts, especially “ours,” with creativity and vigor. Students follow good teachers, and we can also teach them to enjoy eighteenth-century literature.  

As I think about the future of eighteenth-century studies, I see futures, some continuations and some rapidly developing. The first is familiar but will, I think, become increasingly confined to the elite universities that have a lot of majors and produce many “traditional” students who think seriously about graduate school in English. A three-semester undergraduate survey or an entire seminar on Behn or Dryden or Fielding will be taught but rarely. The second future is also familiar: the theme course centered on our literature. I would slot the teaching of novel courses here, partly because the novel is the genre that appeals to students today and also because the canon has become so fluid that the syllabus is usually created from the mind of the professor rather than from a sense of duty to familiarize students with the Dream Team of Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett.

The futures at the undergraduate and graduate levels will, I think, require different adaptations and take somewhat different directions. We in English studies have had to defend what we do and to think about why the humanities are “relevant,” and this examination prepares us well for the future of the undergraduate surveys, both general and genre. We need to make them coherent to today’s students, to give them a raison d’etre for their time. I usually organize mine around the genres that were born in the century and are still being written and are even popular. There are many. I teach Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Johnson’s Life of Savage together, and we talk about all of the places they can find criminal lives and theories of causes of criminal behavior. Pope’s Epistle to Augustus works well in an attack culture like ours where political exaggeration, out-right lying, and even satire are easy to find. We have, perhaps, an obligation to teach students what propaganda is, and we can do Modest Proposal right, and we can set Behn’s part 1 of Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister beside Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel. The alleged “sleazy” novel for women is certainly still around, and my students always enjoy Haywood’s Mercenary Lover, City Jilt, or any of a dozen other titles. The choices are endless. Robinson Crusoe or one of Penelope Aubin’s novels can represent travel literature. The congregational hymn emerged after a struggle in the century, and students are fascinated by the fact that great poets and former slavers wrote hymns they have sung. This way of teaching, of course, opens the possibility of pairing some twentieth and twenty-first century texts with eighteenth-century ones, either from the students’ experiences or from readings on the syllabus. I’ve found students understand The Tatler, Spectator, and Rambler better after reading Hunter Thompson’s “The Hell’s Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga.” Looking for the biting condemnation of the tourists who rushed to see a deadly confrontation alerts students to look for the veiled bite, the serious targets behind the delightful humor in eighteenth-century periodical essays. A light moment can be pairing part 1 of Little Goody Two Shoes with either a contemporary children’s book about a social issue, such as Eve Bunting and David Diaz’s Smokey Night (about the Los Angeles riots), and then a creative alphabet book such as Stephen T. Johnson’s Alphabet City.

At the graduate level, we have somewhat different responsibilities, and the future is to continue to adapt our seminars to teach flexible skills so that our students can respond to different, broader demands. We know that there are increasing numbers of positions advertised for specialists in a genre, with specific theoretical skills, and in areas such as women’s studies. We will, I believe, strengthen the emphasis placed on increasing familiarity with the theories and methodologies we ourselves use. Students who may not intend to become eighteenth-century specialists can take the skills they’ve learned and apply them to the literature of other periods. We may graduate performance studies or novel specialists, and we will continue to graduate students prepared to teach in our field. Some of my students are dramaturgs or direct women’s studies programs, but most of them are Restoration / eighteenth-century century professors. My feminist theory seminar is organized around the question, “What do feminist critics do?” Even as the texts we practice on are by Frances Burney or Charlotte Smith, many students consider it an essential introduction to such practices as writing reception histories and developing other fundamental skills in English studies.

Another future, one that will certainly inflect undergraduate teaching as well, is that we will facilitate discussions about what literature does and can do, especially as it provides enjoyable leisure activities and participates in social change and opinion formation. We know that we teach people to think more broadly and deeply, more analytically and also more empathetically and globally. We know that we increase flexible, multi-dimensional thinking, and that we have deep commitments to helping people understand each other, people and characters very different from ourselves. We can model teaching that facilitates these things. Eighteenth-century literature makes it easy to relate literature to culture and to change. I have taught Sheridan’s School for Scandal with Henrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House; students are fascinated by what’s scandalous and immediately recognize that these plays are about the position of women and their economic dependencies. Another possibility we have is to select texts that convey eighteenth-century writers’ faith in writing and publishing. Certainly Defoe’s do. Graduate students need to know the situation in which writers wrote and what the mediating forces are between writer and text-in-the-bookstore. After listening to a writer or two vent about what happened to his/her book in texts such as Sheridan’s The Critic, students are more prepared to understand “market forces” and anti-intellectualism.

At both the graduate and undergraduate levels, our futures are in sharing more openly our passions for the literature of our period. Helen Vendler once wrote an essay titled, “What We have Loved, Others Will Love.” That is partly true and sometimes not. I remember vividly having finished teaching Pope’s Dunciad brilliantly (I thought). Silence greeted the finale, and then a student near the back of the room asked, “How long have you felt this way about The Dunciad?” Well, at least he knew I had a passionate relationship with it and its passion. Usually, though, we can help students love texts that we do and to see the consummate, aesthetic artistry of scenes in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year or Anne Finch’s “Nocturnal Reverie” — a single sentence, wow! We will talk about the varieties of narrative they enjoyed and the kinds that provide us with diversion today. We can share the great pleasure of seeing how literature copes with the greatest social problems in history. Imagine bringing together Behn’s Oroonoko, Southerne’s play (and the riots it sparked), Wedgewood’s medallion, the late century women’s abolition poetry, Melville’s Benito Cereno, and a few examples of modern civil rights literature. And there is crime—from the haunted and driven Moll Flanders to Lovelace the monster in Clarissa to the Vicar of Wakefield, forced into debt and imprisoned for offending the powerful, to the tortured Caleb Williams. Little noticed is how often eighteenth-century writers described the problems men had finding employment, and the fact that the present economic down-turn has hit men harder than women is gaining considerable attention. What they cared about, we still care about.

I am beginning to see another future for eighteenth-century studies. I see us becoming more willing to let both graduate and undergraduate students write on topics we are capable of judging beyond our comfort zone. We can, and sometimes do, in settings other than classrooms judge argument, organization, clarity, style, and kinds and deployment of evidence when we are not capable of assessing content at a high level. I can imagine our increasingly allowing students to write about texts that do what eighteenth-century texts do as they engage with the art forms, issues, and popular culture of our time. Some of us may be familiar with graphic novels, Modern Family, or Bond No. 9 New Haarlem, but if we are not, could we not judge a paper that grew from our courses and used the analytical methodologies we taught? A paper that sees its subject matter as the descendent of an eighteenth-century form?

For many of us, these futures are already here. There are exciting courses centered on eighteenth-century encounters with India, cross-ocean courses enabled by the availability of novels by Defoe, Frances Brooke, Charlotte Lennox, Edward Kimber and others that portray British travelers and settlers in the American colonies (Geoff, please work faster on Col. Jack), and many others unimagined fifteen years ago. In no way am I suggesting that we pander or try to be falsely relevant; I am saying that the future of eighteenth-century studies enables us to be more open about what we have learned about the relevance of the humanities in the twenty-first century, to identify more clearly what interests us in texts we have selected to teach, and to give our students more access to our passions. I have always seen the eighteenth-century as the period most like our own; we can trust that and, therefore, our futures.

Auburn University

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