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ncf blog

September Topic:
Why do you study the Nineteenth Century?

Ruth M. McAdams is a fifth year in the English Language and Literature PhD program.

Deciding to study the nineteenth century was a long and tortuous process for me, and I’ve only recently started unproblematically self-identifying as a “nineteenth centuryist,” so the topic of this post is something that I have thought a lot about. The core of my scholarly interests early on was always the British novel in the Romantic period, ever since some formative undergraduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania with Professor Michael Gamer (a graduate of the U-M English PhD program, by the way). In the years since, I considered expanding my scope both back into the earlier eighteenth century and forward into the later nineteenth. For two years, as the graduate student coordinator of the Eighteenth-Century Studies Group here at Michigan, I enjoyed learning from our guest speakers and our dissertation workshoppers about the really exciting work going on in that field, and feel like in another life I might also be very happy there.

But what has ultimately pushed me inexorably toward the nineteenth century has been my fascination with the afterlives of some of the texts that first sparked my interest in pursuing graduate study—the Waverley novels, the gothic tradition, etc. For Adela Pinch’s Jane Austen course in my first year of the PhD program, I was assigned to produce an annotated bibliography of Austen biographies through the years. This project became MY LIFE for a few weeks, as I became inordinately obsessed with the rise of the Austen family memoir in the later nineteenth century and the growth of the cult of Austen in the twentieth. As I stayed up late into the night plowing through volume after lengthy volume, review after cantankerous review of competing accounts of Austen’s life, I realized that I was mesmerized by the way a writer’s cultural status can evolve and accrue new meanings over time. I also realized that I should never, ever attempt to write a biography of Jane Austen!

But really, the nineteenth century is a fascinating era for the study of literary afterlives and reception. From the practice of “tranching down” bestsellers from one price-point to another, to the changing role of libraries, to the widespread piracy of books in Britain and overseas, the rapidly changing media landscape of the nineteenth century had endlessly interesting implications for the way literature of the past was being consumed.

So I guess that’s it—I’m a nineteenth centuryist now. Although I do occasionally glance over at my well-thumbed copy of Robinson Crusoe on the bookshelf and think: what if?