An Interview with Professor Emily Wittman

Emily Wittman
Emily Wittman

Dr. Emily Ondine Wittman is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at The University of Alabama. She is the Director of the Program in Comparative and World Literature, has served as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences from 2010 to 2013, and was the recipient of the university-wide Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award in 2010. She got her B.A. in Philosophy at Yale and her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Princeton. A prolific scholar and translator, she has recently devoted much of her time to her new co-edited books, The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography and Modernism and Autobiography.

I understand that you are committed to many different kinds of research, ranging from the practice and theory of translation, with particular interest in modernism, to depictions of mental illness in 20th century literature. How have your academic interests prepared you for writing The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography?

The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography begins with a chapter on Augustine’s Confessions (circa 398 C.E.) and concludes with chapters on creative nonfiction and the contemporary memoir. I was particularly excited about the volume as it allowed me to draw from the different parts of my unusual academic trajectory: I have a B.A. in Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. My last two academic appointments (as a Postdoctoral Fellow and as a Visiting Assistant Professor) were in the Humanities. Of course, I also had a warm and effortlessly learned coeditor (Professor Maria DiBattista of Princeton University). She did double duty as coeditor and muse.

Since much of your work has an international focus, have you ever studied abroad fully immersed yourself into the culture of your work?

Yes, I have spent a number of years abroad. I have spent at least two years in France, one as a visiting fellow at the École normale supérieure in Paris. I also studied in Germany during and after college. I had intended to pursue a Master’s degree in Philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin before pursuing a Ph.D. in the United States but I had some health problems from prior travels. A dream quashed! I taught for a year at Bilkent University in Turkey—that was my first academic appointment. Finally, I have traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico, and Morocco and I spent a meaningful summer in Yemen, where I continued my studies in Classical Arabic.

How long did it take you to complete The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography?

Maria and I did two collections simultaneously: The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography and Modernism and Autobiography (both published in 2014). The whole process took about 2.5 years. This timeframe was a pretty quick turnaround, but we had a great time working with each other and our contributors were fantastic and on point.

As an English major and Psychology minor, I am particularly interested in your study of mental illness in the 20th century. Can you tell me more about how/why you narrowed your focus to this topic? Can you also discuss some of the work you have done on the work you’ve done on mental illness in 20th century literature?

Well, mental illness is just one of my interests but a strong one indeed. As a culture, we scapegoat, demonize, and debase the mentally ill. At the same time, we are fascinated by them. F. Scott Fitzgerald telegraphs this interest vividly in This Side of Paradise (1920) through the character of Amory Blaine who claims that people “warm themselves ”at the bonfire of a “good man going wrong.”

Many of the writers I work on were mentally ill by contemporary standards: Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Félix Guattari. But I have zero patience for critics who go chasing after living or dead writers with the DSM-V in hand.

My translations of Félix Guattari deal primarily with his experiences at La Borde, an experimental mental institution in France founded in 1951. Guattari worked as an analyst at La Borde but he was also temporarily a patient at Saint-Alban, another experimental institution. At La Borde, inmates were invited to help run the institution and—amazingly—routinely permitted to perform administrative roles. There was also a club where staff, administrators, doctors, and patients worked together to plan activities and discussing the running of the hospital. In Guattari’s words, the “center intention” was to “abrogate various roles and stereotypes: to behave like a madman, a doctor or a nurse, to promote human relationships that no longer lead automatically to lesser roles and stereotypes.”

I am also completing a monograph on Jean Rhys who was delusional, paranoid, and addicted to alcohol and phenobarbital.

Can you tell me a little more about your current research agenda?

In addition to the Jean Rhys monograph, I am working with Professor Karina Vazquez on a collection of lyric essays about Cuba. The working title is Cuban Atmospheres. I also intend to work at some point on criminal slang in literature. I take seriously Jean Genet’s contention that slang is a secondary sexual attribute.

Was English always a passion of yours? Which authors have inspired your writing?

Yes, absolutely. Always. Emily Dickinson was my first love.

Among others: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Bernhard, and Harold Bloom. They haven’t necessarily influenced my style, but they often hover over my shoulder when I write.

What is the toughest part about writing a book?