The College Magazine - Summer 2001

As approaches to traditional disciplines evolve, researchers and academicians can find themselves "poaching" in each other's territory.


Dror wahrman and Kenneth Johnston
English and History
Mix it Up on the Fields of Study
by Leora Baude

Kenneth Johnston, professor and chair of English at Indiana University, studies the Romantics. He recently published a major biography of the poet William Wordsworth. Now approaching retirement, he has spent his entire career at Indiana University. Tall and rangy, he speaks slowly, appreciatively, of his field of study, with something of the air of the hero of a Hollywood Western turning his mind to Keats and the Gothic sensibility.

On the other hand, history Professor Dror Wahrman - a slight, nimble man who leapt onto his desk to wrestle open a temperamental window in his office when we spoke - speaks with breathtaking quickness, as if he never loses consciousness of all the facts he has yet to gather. A cultural historian, Wahrman is particularly interested in representations of race, gender, and the self in 18th-century Britain.

The demeanor of the two men seems emblematic of their intellectual preoccupations. As a literary scholar, Johnston is trained to take his time, to spend months, or years, examining lines that a casual reader might scan in minutes. Wahrman, whose work analyzes the spirit of an age, is constantly looking for more evidence to marshal in support of his ideas. There is no source too obscure, no citation too many. Both men agree, however, that their work has much in common, and that the disciplines they represent are growing closer and closer together.

An 18th-century study group in which both participate draws about half its members from English, half from history. The group has expanded so much that it will soon become a center, supported by funding from the multidisciplinary ventures fund of the College of Arts and Sciences. Wahrman recently won the Clifford Prize of the American Society for 18th-Century Studies, an honor more often bestowed on a literary critic than on a historian. He suggests that the period he and Johnston study lends itself especially well to an interdisciplinary approach. "In the 18th century," he says, "people didn't recognize the same boundaries we do now."

Part of their rapprochement, however, is due to larger movements within their two disciplines. While the sometimes bitter wrangling over expanding the canon of great works in English or rewriting the history of oppressed peoples has drawn a lot of attention in the political arena and in the media, other equally important transformations have been reshaping English and history more quietly. Within the last 10 or 15 years, critical formalism, an approach to English that emphasizes "art for art's sake," has increasingly given way to new historicism, a way of integrating literature into its historical period. "If it's well done," says Johnston, "it lets you see the relation between text and context," and much more comprehensively than the old-fashioned way of teaching the lives of the authors. "You're going to see the texts in new ways, and that's great."

At the same time, the field of history has broadened to include cultural history, which is where, in Wahrman's words, "all the boundaries break down." Where a traditional historian might examine parish records of births, deaths, and marriages to understand how a particular population contracted or grew or reconfigured itself in a given period, a cultural historian might look for descriptions of or references to these events in widely disparate sources in order to understand how that population imagined them.

Ken Johnston says that sometimes students complain to him that they just want to study literature. "I ask them: what does 'just' mean?" he says. Even in the best of the good old days, the boundaries between literature and everything else were never clear and were always moving. When you read a poem and you don't know what a word means, you look it up in a dictionary -and you've already moved away from the text, from "just" literature.

But even an ardent new historicist - as Johnston, who says he now "reads more history than literature" describes himself - has some sympathy for the students' point of view. When faced with some of the works that have recently taken their place in his syllabi, his first reaction is "This is a crappy piece of writing. Why would you want to read it?" But he adds, "The study of a subject is larger than the text. As an example, when they first read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, students are often disappointed. It's actually a crappy book. But outside of literary considerations, it's extremely interesting." Johnston teaches his students to look at how Frankenstein works, how it enters into the public conversations of its day about nature and Romanticism, religion and science, men and women.

If you are used to thinking of English class as a place where you learn how to read and appreciate the great artists and craftsmen of the language, with perhaps a smattering of historical background to help you get the obscurer allusions, then this way of studying a novel looks almost anti-literary. Johnston admits that when he teaches a course on Romanticism now, he teaches a lot more history than he would have in the same course at the beginning of his career. "One of my students wrote on a course evaluation, 'If you're going to require so much history, we should get double credit.'"

"It's not just fellow scholars, however, who have to be convinced that the new approaches are vaild. The battle is sometimes with the public."

In fact, an anthology of readings Johnston uses to teach Romanticism never even mentions the "R" word, which is very much a constructed peg for hanging the whole period on. The textbook just outlines the years it draws its materials from. Writings by women, by people of color, and by anonymous hacks - people who may have no interest whatsoever in Nature or the Sublime - fill its pages in defiance of the judgment of previous generations of critics, who had decided that the Romantic worldview offered the one truly literary perspective on literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In other words, "taste" - that faculty of discrimination so dear to the 18th-century heart - is much less dominant in English classrooms today than it was less than a generation ago. But the texts themselves are still very much - perhaps more than ever - at the heart of the matter. After all, as Johnston says, "I came into this field not because I had some interest in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, but because I'm moved by the literature."

For the literary scholar, the text is the thing. However unbeautiful a poem or novel may be, however ill it can stand apart from its historical context - even if, instead of a poem or story, the text in question is a Web site or a soap opera - the questions the critic (as opposed to the historian) asks are about the literature itself. What work does the text do? How does it function in the public discourse? How do readers use literature?

The cultural historian, on the other hand, uses the text to illuminate its time. Wahrman says, "I probably read more English than history." But he has no interest in how the texts he reads work as texts. "I don't deal with the plot or interpreting the text," he says. "And I don't spend much time with canonical literature - or not more than anything else. They're all cultural artifacts to me. There is no privileging of any one kind of source. I am just looking for repeated patterns in the texts." He adds that he is not interested in "the genealogy of ideas." He doesn't care who originates an idea, even if it were possible to know. "I'm interested in when things resonate. I'm trying to understand the Zeitgeist."

Wahrman's current work on the portrayal of Amazons has led him from translations of Latin texts to political broadsides to treatises on beekeeping. Sometimes his "texts" may not be written at all. For example, for a paper on attitudes toward motherhood and femininity, he used underwear - pads for making women look pregnant that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1790s - as a source.

The kind of work Wahrman does draws fire from some other historians, who contend that cultural history is unprovable and insufficiently rigorous. Wahrman uses a methodology that he hopes will eventually make cultural history palatable for traditional historians. "That's very different from what people in English are doing."

"It doesn't always work," he says. "I try to speak both languages. Some people get extremely angry about this. But I don't want to collapse the distinctions. I think they allow different kinds of questions.

"The best argument against what I do," he says, "is that I'm making inductive arguments. It's difficult. It's like connecting the dots - I assemble all of these dots, and then I just decide to connect them into an elephant. In the end, it is a leap of faith. I can't prove it's an elephant." But he is careful to assemble all the dots he can before he begins to draw. "To make the case as strong as possible, look in unlikely places, in very different places, gather evidence from a huge range of sources."

It's not just fellow scholars, however, who have to be convinced that the new approaches are valid. The battle is sometimes with the public.

A few years ago, the English department ran a lecture series that was designed to explain to the educated laity what on earth was going on in the English department. To some, this seemed like a strange undertaking: Why should we need English to be explained? What is the big mystery? If we can read it and write it, why then, we can read what other people have written, and we can read what they have written about what they have read. And what more is there to the study of English literature than that? And yet, in many people's minds, the current trends in the department - especially as caricatured by screeds in the editorial pages - seem to prove that the modern academy is out of touch, an enemy in the culture wars.

"The public expects to understand whatever is going on in English," says Johnston. "But we wouldn't expect physicists to still be teaching Newtonian physics, and English changes too. The humanities change differently from the way the sciences change, but they change. I like this conflict. We should take advantage of it."

Wahrman notes that the language of cultural history, which discusses race, gender, and selfhood, overlaps with the language of identity politics. Some people, he says, especially on the political right, "see the onslaught of this language as a threat in itself."

But history, Wahrman adds, has room for many different methods and many different views. "This is a house of many mansions," he says.

Johnston, also optimistic and equally inclined to invoke outside authority on this point, says with a smile that is only slightly uncertain, "It was Blake who said, after all, that intellectual warfare is truest friendship."

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