On Writing What Needs to be Written

I was asked to write an essay for The Atlantic reflecting on Jane Austen’s bicentennial, and I was so glad to do it. I have a complicated relationship with Austen, but I’ve made my peace with it, primarily because I read her with such great students. So, I’m happy with her and about how she’s been celebrated. What I’ve not been so happy about is the trajectory of my research agenda. I started two book projects at once—a collection that turned out to be Written/Unwritten and a book on the history of the novel. Written/Unwritten found a publisher first, but it also felt more urgent. When I finished it, I planned to turn back to the book on the history of the novel, but that work felt perfunctory, like a performance of what I thought I should write back when I was a graduate school.   I gave it a year, but I kept saying I was writing the book on the history of the novel but then giving conference papers on British abolitionist lit. My thought was that I’d write the book I was supposed to write and then write the book I wanted to write, one about abolitionist literature, genre, sugar, motherhood, amelioration, and sugar some more. I wanted to write about sugar bowls and gender and kept looking longingly at these tantalizing books on the subject.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written…”
–Madeline L’Engle

There’s no one thing to point to that ended up with me in an administrator’s office explaining that I wanted to use a research grant to look in different archives for different stories about England in the nineteenth century.  Seeing my students ask more questions than I have answers for in my abolitionist literature class is part of the reason.  I also know the energy it takes to get a book done, and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to take that on without totally invested in the project. It also feels like I can do more to make my research matter if I take up the questions I’ll explore in this book. They haven’t gone anywhere in centuries, and now seems like the right time when more and more people are seeing what a lot of black folks have always known about race, racism, and racial violence.

It’s scary. I was sitting in an archive in April, feeling slightly nauseous about the work ahead of me.  And I don’t want to be a person who quits a project half way through. I’m trusting that what people who know me well say about me is true—I’m not quick but I am very persistent. I’m also trusting that I’m a clearer writer and thinker now than I was when I planned the other book.

Of course, the moment I started working on the book proposal, all of the research I’ve been doing was relevant to this project but in a new way. And at least one of those former book chapters is on its way to being transformed into a journal article—where I suspect it will actually have more impact. Somewhere between the conference-length essay and the 9,000-word chapter draft is a stunning, erudite consideration of Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Genre, and Byron. I’ll find it. People have been interested in seeing me write more things like this Emma piece in the Toast, and I’m working on that too. It’s hard in a different way, but it’s a good struggle, and I feel lucky to have people waiting to help me get it done.

This means I write more than I used to. I’ve spent most of the summer writing (that and walking off two years of stress and anxiety), reading, and putting together a research agenda that makes sense. I’m this close to finishing what will be first big journal article on British abolitionist lit, co-editing a cluster issue on abolitionist lit with Manu Chander (it’s gonna be GOOD), and balancing two different kinds of book proposals. So we’ll see. If you’re a praying person, pray for me. If you’re not and you see me in a café or bar writing, buy me a drink.

CFP: “Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature, 1790-1830”

abolition lit art

I’m so excited to be working with Manu Chander on a special journal issue.

Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature, 1790-1830

Essay length:                             7,000—8,000 words
Abstracts due:                           31 March 2017
Essays due:                                1 November 2017

The conversation about literature that circulated in response to Britain’s debates about the slave trade has moved beyond considering Equiano’s Interesting Narrative as the representative text of British abolitionist discourse.  Debbie Lee and Peter Kitson’s eight-volume Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (1999) was followed by projects that not only upended considerations of the Romantic canon as a whole but also made clear how deeply ingrained questions of national identity and race were to the major figures of the period. Lee’s Slavery and the Romantic Imagination (2002), Paul Youngquist’s Race, Romanticism and the Atlantic (2013) and Evan Gottleib’s Global Romanticism (2014) along with others have prompted questions of alterity, national identity, and genre that underpin Romantic-era literature.

As part of the current critical discourse that takes up questions of alterity and globalism in the wake of newly discovered abolitionist texts and lines of inquiry, we seek essays for a special journal issue that invites contributors to engage collectively with “abolitionist forms”–literary genres and formal innovation, as well as cultural formations (societies, organizations, coteries, etc.), and diverse, non-verbal means of communicating about slavery and emancipation (material goods, visual texts).

Although we are open to essays that take up issues and ideas related to the texts, figures, and movements associated with the period, we are particularly interested in essays that take up the following questions,

  • Can we speak of abolition as genre—as a way of producing/marketing literature, a series of expectations, a discrete set of purposes, styles, forms that cross traditional generic boundaries?
  • In what ways did abolition inspire or require new forms of literary communication, or revisions of traditional generic categories?
  • Where do form and content intersect in abolitionist texts?
  • How did the cultural limits placed on white women writers shape their complicated investment in the abolitionist movement?
  • How did abolition contribute to the formation of social groups in which historically marginalized subjects were given voice?
  • To what extent can we speak of abolition in the singular and what are the limits of history that can be exposed/transcended by theory/literature?
  • How does the use of new technology to uncover/recover under examined sources and the proliferation of online archives shape discourses around raced bodies, particularly for novices?

Editors
Manu Samriti Chander is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. His research interests include British Romanticism, colonialism and postcolonialism, and aesthetic theory. He is the author of Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century, forthcoming from Bucknell University Press, and the editor of Egbert Martin: Scriptology (Caribbean Press, 2014). He currently is developing a second book project, Art Fights: Aesthetic Controversy and the Lessons of Modernity, which pursues a cultural trajectory from poetic works of Wordsworth and Keats, to the novels of Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov, and the films of D.W. Griffith and Stanley Kubrick.

Patricia A. Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University. She focuses on the history of the novel, Romantic era-fiction and abolitionist literature, and diversity in higher education. She is writing a book about representations of the body and the discourse of disease and illness in Romantic-era fiction. She is the co-editor with Miriam Wallace of a special issue for Romantic Pedagogy Commons (“Novel Prospects: Teaching Romantic-Era Fiction”) and has published essays and reviews in Women’s Writing, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and the Keats-Shelley Journal. She is the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and has published essays and books reviews on diversity in higher education in PMLA, The ADE Bulletin, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The New Inquiry and The Atlantic.