February 13, 2002: Features

Scientific advances make the headlines, but Princeton’s English professors are breaking new ground, too

By Argelio R. Dumenigo

Researching the work of French author Marcel Proust inevitably leads one to reading his seven-volume, 3,000-page A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (traditionally translated as Remembrance of Things Past but more recently rendered as In Search of Lost Time).

Hours dedicated to a close reading of the epic work, however, did not deter English professor Michael Wood from beginning to write a biography of Proust, considered a pioneer of the modern novel. (Though Wood does joke that by the time he finished reading the book, he’d forgotten much of the beginning.) Wood’s work also calls for a thorough reading of the prolific Proust’s 21-volume collection of letters.

“This is a guy who spent all his time ill in bed, couldn’t work, always complaining he never had time, but he managed to fill 21 volumes of letters,” says Wood, who is also a member of the comparative literature department.

Proust is just one of the many authors and bodies of work being milled and mulled over by members of Princeton’s English department as they unearth, discover, explain, and illuminate not only literature, but art, theater, film, history, photography, and music. To steal a line from the old television ad campaign: This is not your father’s English department.

Acting chair Nigel Smith, who taught at Oxford before coming to Princeton three years ago, is impressed by the variety of research work in the department. “Coming in from one of the top universities in the U.K., I was astounded by the high quality of research at Princeton. Not only for its vitality, but its range and depth,” he says. Research grants for two department members — Eduardo Cadava and Lee Clark Mitchell — from a dwindling pool of money at the National Endowment for the Humanities affirm some of that quality.

Smith credits the farsightedness of the department’s hiring efforts for creating an atmosphere of openness to the literature of ethnic minorities, to different methodologies, to cultural studies, and to the interdisciplinary relationship of literary studies with other media, as well as with subjects such as art history, philosophy, and history.

But Smith, Wood, and other professors say the university has also looked after traditional areas and the classics, such as Shakespeare and the Anglo-Saxon canon. “I think there has been a shift, a broadening of the curriculum. But the question is whether it has really been at the expense of the classics, and I do not think that is true,” says Wood, who also chairs the department but is on leave this year. “I don’t think the classics are in any real danger.”

Professor Thomas P. Roche *58, who has been teaching at Princeton since he entered the university as a graduate student in 1954, agrees. As more graduate students find it harder to land teaching jobs, the Spenserian scholar foresees a shift back to historical studies of literature and away from the literary theory that has dominated the field since the mid-1960s. “Graduate students are sick of theory,” Roche says.

Nevertheless, English faculty research covers a lot of ground today, maybe more than ever. “For a department that is half the size of the one I left, there is a considerably broader range of topics. Ultimately that serves the students better,” says Smith.

To cover all the subject matter researched by the 36 members of the department would be an endeavor of Proustian proportions. What follow are merely snapshots of the work of a handful of professors.


Stereotypes and the stage
Daphne Brooks

Brooks, who joined the department last year, teaches African-American literature. She is currently completing revisions on a manuscript entitled Bodies in Dissent: Performing Race, Gender, and Nation in the Trans-Atlantic Imaginary. Brooks charts the convergence of African-American travels between Africa, Europe, and the Americas; theater; and political activism in the period prior to and following the Civil War, roughly 1850 to 1910. Her research focused on renegade forms of black theater and how those performance strategies challenged racial, gender, and bodily epistemologies. One performer, Henry “Box” Brown, escaped slavery in 1848 by mailing himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in a crate. He eventually toured Britain while “mailing” himself to various cities as a promotion.

Music and missed opportunities
Eduardo Cadava

Cadava is working on a book called Music on Bones about the relation between music and the techniques of reproducing, memorizing, and writing it, and another book, Mourning America, for which he recently received a fellowship from the NEH, on the relationship between mourning and nationalism. Arguing that the formation of an American identity is inevitably involved with acts of death and national mourning, he seeks to trace the way in which writers from Emerson to Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. DuBois mourn an America that has yet to realize the promises of freedom and equality on which it was founded. In his chapter on Emerson’s relation to issues of race and manifest destiny, for example, Cadava suggests that the nation and its economy prosper because of the slaves and ethnic minorities that have, in Emerson’s metaphor, “fertilized” the American soil. Following Emerson’s metaphor has led Cadava to do extensive archival research on the multimillion-dollar guano trade in the 19th century.

Teaching poetry in the renaissance
Jeff Dolven

Dolven, in his second semester at the university, is working on a book tentatively entitled Tales Out of School, on the relationship between literary romance and humanist pedagogy during the English Renaissance, or, as he puts it, “poetry and school at a time when secular literature was becoming central to the curriculum for the first time.” His research included hunting down old schoolbooks and sifting through 400 years of criticism. “I am interested in how poets responded to these new didactic imperatives, how they thought their vocation fit with the school project of fashioning virtuous citizens,” he says.

Dolven also writes poetry, which has appeared in the Paris Review and the Times Literary Supplement, among other publications.

The novel as entertainment
Claudia L. Johnson *81

Johnson is in the midst of developing two books. The first, started last year while Johnson was on a Guggenheim Fellowship, is called Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures and explores what Johnson calls “author love,” the attachment people have to authors not as writers, but as “figures of curiosity, veneration, national or regional pride, or community.” “It is not so much about Jane Austen’s novels themselves as it is about people’s distinctively intensive attachment to Jane Austen herself,” she says. Johnson traced Austen clubs and cults to soldiers during World War I and to the English public during the Blitz in World War II. In Raising the Novel, her other book, Johnson attempts to recover a relatively recent past in academia when novels had a status as frivolous entertainment, similar to television today. She’s looking at the history of anthologies, collections, and textbooks to determine how and when novels were raised to a level deserving disciplined study.

Working at being alone
Jeff Nunokawa

Interested in the connection between sociology and literature, Nunokawa is researching a book on what he calls “the pleasures and dangers of gaining and keeping solitude” in 19th-century literature. Entitled Eros and Isolation, the work examines different literary and sociological approaches to what one social scientist termed “awayness.” “It’s not about being alone, but the costly, exhaustive work that goes into being alone,” Nunokawa says. “Nineteenth-century novels were tremendously concerned with and aware of our sociality, that we are always surrounded by the thoughts of others.” Among the authors he tackles are Austen, Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray, George Eliot, and John Stuart Mill. He recently finished another book called Tame Passions of Wilde: Styles of Manageable Desire.

Still Hearing the muse
Thomas P. Roche *58

Roche continues his work on Edmund Spenser through the Spenser Society and the poetry annual Spenser Studies, which calls on him to read at least 60 manuscripts on the Renaissance poet a year. “I am a reading machine,” says the department’s senior member. He is also working on three book manuscripts, including treatises on Petrarch and the iconography of the Muses throughout history. His work on Petrarch has included poring over hundreds of translations of the 14th-century Italian poet, beginning with the first by Geoffrey Chaucer and leading up through the present. His research into the Muses has been going on for nearly 20 years, but he is set to complete the book this summer.

Theories on fiction and film
Michael Wood

In addition to his work on Proust, Wood has recently completed or is working on three books: one on Franz Kafka; another on oracles throughout history; and one on filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. With the Proust biography, he hopes to challenge the idea that biographies always have to be triumphant and instead to get to the actual experience of Proust’s life. “A lot of biographies are written as if everything had to be the way it turned out,” Wood says. “I want to look at things like what’s it like for Marcel Proust when he turns 30. He’s written almost nothing. He’s got asthma. He’s a social climber but he’s not doing too well at social climbing. All the friends he calls on say they’re not in. He’s not really making out. That guy, I think, has a right to exist.”

Argelio R. Dumenigo is PAW’s associate editor.

ON THE WEB: http://web.princeton.edu/sites/english/Faculty0001.htm


Smart and sassy: the language of the American Dame

You sort of changed my whole philosophy about women,” said Jimmy Stewart ’32 to Claudette Colbert in the 1939 movie It’s A Wonderful World. “I don’t know, I always figured they all ended at the neck. You sort of begin there.”

That’s where Maria DiBattista’s latest book begins, too. In Fast-Talking Dames, the English and comparative literature professor dissects the patter of the heroines of 1930s and 1940s screwball comedies, played by such stars as Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, and Katharine Hepburn, to uncover what they were really saying — about women, about men, about American society, and about language itself. Recently, DiBattista, who chairs the Film Studies program in the Humanities and is also an expert in modern European literature, discussed the guilty pleasure of researching funny films. They aren’t just black and white, after all.

Read what Maria DiBattista has to say about those fast-talking dames on PAW ONLINE FEATURES.

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