Volume 49, Number 1, Spring 2017
Daniel Defoe and Abandoned Life—David Hollingshead
Daniel Defoe’s exemplary status in cultural histories of the novel rests upon the premise that his fiction anticipates the rise of bourgeois civil society—a shift in social relations precipitated by the disarticulation of labor and exchange from sovereign control. This essay complicates the progressive (and often emancipatory) narrative of the civil society hermeneutic model by attending to the figure of “abandoned life” in Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year, arguing that a more robust understanding of Defoe’s political imagination vis-à-vis sovereign power takes shape if we attend to the ways that a “Life not worth saving” structures his vision of the social. I situate the novel form as central to this vision. My readings establish a direct connection between the unique mode of referentiality that novels invented (an orientation toward what Henry Fielding called “not men but manners; not an individual but a species”) and the unique mode of governance that modern nation-states required (an orientation toward what Michel Foucault called “not man-as-body but…man-as-species”) to argue that Defoe’s novelistic imagination was biopolitical from the very start.
This essay argues that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) incorporates a threatening non-reproductive ideology from nineteenth-century print culture into its seventeenth-century setting, casting the birth of its famous protagonist’s daughter in relation to abortion’s alternative and the book’s own composition in relation to nothingness. It is through the subject of abortion, which circulated with high visibility in advertisements and other printed material in antebellum New England cities, that The Scarlet Letter’s attention to such concepts as adultery, birth, life, and citizenship finds new and ironic force. Hester Prynne’s characterization as her community’s scapegoat, moreover, aligns with reports about the scandalous midwife-abortionist Madame Restell that circulated in the press throughout the 1840s.
Tracing the reception of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times and its doomed millworker Stephen Blackpool through nineteenth-century American print culture, the essay shows how a conservative text and character were radicalized and repurposed to suit an audience grappling with the shift to a predominately industrial economy. A contextual reading of their reception reveals the novel’s function as a tool of social reform for a society caught between two contradictory impulses: an embrace of the working class and a worship of capitalism. The linguistic adoption of dialogue and characters; the contextualization of Hard Times alongside labor fiction such as Frederic Whittaker’s Larry Locke, Man of Iron, or, A Fight for Fortune: A Story of Labor and Capital, Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills,” and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887; and the deletion of key passages on unionization from a dime novel reprint all demonstrate how nineteenth-century American audiences retooled a popular English novel for their own radical purposes.
Reconsidering Thomas Pynchon’s quintessential paranoid text through the bifocal lens of contemporary criticism’s turn to affect and contemporary fiction’s so-called new sincerity, this essay reads The Crying of Lot 49 as a lamentation of sentimentality in its postmodern moment—a moment defined by its supposed waning of affect. Locating the pathos of Pynchon’s novel in precisely this suppression of feeling, this sentimental reading not only fills the bleeding heart-shaped hole in the current body of Lot 49 scholarship, but also reframes post-postmodernism’s project as a natural extension of the postmodernist sensibility rather than a deliberate refutation of it.
Elias Khoury’s second novel, Little Mountain, has become a reference point for both the Lebanese Civil War literature and the fragmentary narrative style associated with it. Little Mountain’s fragmentary and repetitive narrative, rather than standing for a crisis of conventional mimeses as the common reading would have it, actually connects the two crucial domains of identity—the aesthetic and the political. The chaos that narrative repetition creates stunts the development of identity, in both senses of the word. Repetition does so by targeting the logic of representation itself, exposing in turn the aporia of difference at the heart of national identity. The trauma ensuing in such a situation, then, comes as a result of the disintegration of the illusory sense of being part of a solid, national collective.
While the novels of J. M. Coetzee have received critical attention mainly for their political and ethical concerns, Coetzee’s later fiction turns to questions of religion’s potential to guide the search for value. Situating Coetzee between strident secularism on the one hand and sanguine postsecularism on the other, I show how religious questions are central to his most famous work, Disgrace. I argue that Coetzee deflates inherited forms of Romantic and modernist epiphany into irresolution and lack of transformation to instead create an anti-epiphany, one that recasts traditional understandings of literary and religious insight in order to explore more tentative and gradual reorientations. Drawn from a modest and careful, but open and curious, engagement with religion after secularism, these modes privilege giftedness and bearing others’ burdens. More broadly, this reading develops the relationship between modernism and contemporary literature and further challenges the dominant understanding of the novel as a secularizing form.
Karim Abuawad is an assistant professor at the Department of English Languages and Literature at Birzeit University. He teaches courses on British and American literature, in addition to academic writing. His research interests include critical theory, Arabic and the Anglophone-Arabic novel, nationalism, immigrant narratives, and postcolonial studies. He holds a PhD in comparative literature.
David Bordelon is an associate professor of English at Ocean County College. The author of several articles and chapters on nineteenth-century print culture and reader reception, he is currently working on a book applying these approaches to a transatlantic subject: Charles Dickens and Nineteenth Century America: The Great Actuality of the Current Imagination.
Jack Dudley is an assistant professor of English at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. His research interests include modern and contemporary British, American, and global literature as well as literary theory. His current project traces the interrelationship of secularism, postsecularism, and subjectivity in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary history.
David Hollingshead is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Brown University, where he is writing a dissertation about transatlantic naturalism and nineteenth-century biopolitical institutions.
Dana Medoro is an associate professor of American literature at the University of Manitoba. She is currently completing a monograph titled Antebellum Abortion: Open Secrets in Poe and Hawthorne, under contract with the University of New Hampshire Press.
Sydney Miller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently working on her dissertation, tentatively titled “Weather Ex Machina: Climatic Determinism and the Fiction of Causality in the Twentieth-Century Novel.”