Of late, I have been writing about two mid-nineteenth-century novels: the first is a book that almost no one has ever read, William North’s The City of the Jugglers (1850); whereas the second is one that almost everyone has been assigned to read, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854). The first imagines a commodities market for human souls leading to a writers’ strike that precipitates the fall of the British government. The second, written in the context of an actual weavers’ strike, probes the insufficiencies of the industrial market and utilitarianism for answering the needs of the human soul. What they have in common, I think, is a preoccupation with status that is peculiarly Victorian because grounded in absence and epistemological uncertainty. Status—its appearance in literature, its bearing upon literary study—is also the topic of the spring 2015 departmental Symposium on English and American Literature, which I am organizing. Thus, I anticipate that reading and writing about status, both the peculiarly Victorian and the more broadly peculiar, will remain a preoccupation of mine for many months to come.
I am currently working on my dissertation: “Rhetoric Revival: Reimagining the Cincinnati Art Museum through the Google Art Project” that examines the ways in which a reinvigoration or revival of the Cincinnati Art Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio coincides with the city’s own revival after years of struggle. In the mid and late 1800s, the city was a major part of many national and international art movements and the Museum has dedicated much of the first floor to this history and to these pieces. My project examines not only the ways in which these pieces and the design of the wing are rhetorically connected to the reinvigoration of the city itself, but I am also examining what happens to that rhetorical message when the pieces are moved from the live space of the museum to the digital space of the Google Art Project.
My current research demonstrates my interest in both the history of rhetoric and the development of that history in the United States. Voices of Southern Radicalism: Prophetic Discourse, Agrarian Consciousness, and the Fight for Human Welfare, my dissertation, is an archival study in social movement discourse that contributes to rhetorical history. It explores the dialogue that resulted from the Southern Agrarian’s defense of Old Southern ideals in I’ll Take My Stand and establishes the importance of previously unconsidered radical Southern discourse as a precursor to the more widely recognized Civil Rights Movement rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s. It also answers social movement theorists’ calls to include the vernacular rhetoric of place in historiographical studies by focusing on the legacy of the radical Social Gospel prophets in the South. The influence of these prophets, including Alva Taylor, James Dombrowski, and Howard Kester, contributed to a highly developed reform culture in the South, manifesting in the fight for human welfare and a radical Southern rhetorical consciousness.
Knowing of my interest in Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Chris Love suggested that we collaborate on a paper which focused on John Updike’s “Scarlet Letter Trilogy.” But as I read Updike’s Month of Sundays, I felt that the novel had more in common with Melville’s conception of Hawthorne (as outlined in Melville’s essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses”) than it did with my understanding of The Scarlet Letter itself. As a result, I suggested that we shift our focus away from the more traditional “Hawthorne-Updike” connection and research potential connections between Updike and Melville. We discovered that not much had been said about this potential line of influence, and subsequently decided to turn our attention to Melville’s Pierre as a kind of precursor to the domestic drama of Month of Sundays. We were surprised to find numerous linkages: both novels disrupt the 19th-c ideal of True Womanhood, which in turn causes the novels to reevaluate marriage, the role of sex in marriage, and the morality of American domesticity. Ultimately, we found that Updike is complicating the conventions of the domestic novel just as much as Melville is. If Pierre in an indictment of Hawthorne for not pushing the boundaries enough in House of the Seven Gables, then Month of Sundays is Updike’s way of reining in some of more taboo elements of Melville’s novel while still complicating the conventions of 19th-century domestic fiction.