New Article in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction

My article on the influence of the Underground Railroad on the plot of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady appears in the most recent issue of NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. The article focuses on a house in James’s masterpiece that the author based on his grandmother’s home in Albany, New York. This grandmother, Catharine James, whom the novelist stayed with as a boy, lived near numerous stations on the Underground Railroad.

While The Portrait of a Lady features an unusual number of grand homes, the Albany house is not one of them. One critic, Marilyn Chandler, characterizes the home as an “architectural joke” compared to the other houses in the novel. When Isabel first meets the aunt who takes her out of Albany to Europe, this aunt, Mrs. Touchett, calls the home “very bad” and “bourgeois.” (Mrs. Touchett lives in a more typical house in the world of The Portrait of a Lady, an Italian castle.)

I argue that the “very bad” house in Albany operates as a spatial representation of the novel’s plot — or to use the term preferred by James, the novel’s “ado.” In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James calls the word plot “nefarious” before reflecting on the process of creating an “ado” for Isabel in terms that evoke the “square” and “large” Albany house. He metaphorically describes constructing the novel’s narrative action as building a “square and spacious house” around his isolated heroine. Isabel when staying in Albany remains notably isolated, choosing to be alone. She consistently appears in a room whose door to the “vulgar street” is bolted shut and “condemned.”

In my analysis of the Albany house as a symbol of the novel’s plot, I consider the history of the upstate city in different decades, including the 1850s when Isabel daydreams in front of the bolted door and the Underground Railroad was particularly active in Albany. I ultimately assert that the history of Black people in the US crossing regional and national borders in the 1850s in pursuit of freedom centrally and problematically determine James’s highly influential plot about an innocent, white American woman travelling to Europe in search of personal freedom.  

To read the article, please visit NOVEL‘s site. If you cannot get past the paywall, you can download a pdf of the article at

Dubravka Ugrešić

I am sad to learn the news of Dubravka Ugrešić’s death. Her fiction is always surprising and often moving. I wrote about her brilliant novel, The Ministry of Pain, which explores the power of memory along with the mercy of forgetting.

Ugrešić lived in exile both in the US and Europe after her home country, Yugoslavia, fell apart and became Croatia. Uncompromising and insightful, she criticized not only Croatia’s nationalism but also the US’s consumerism and superficiality. She consistently examined the seemingly well-meaning individual to reveal how political and social circumstances affect the spirit and mind.

For a 2018 article in The New Yorker, Christopher Byrd spoke with Ugrešić, who was in the US to promote her collection of essays, American Fictionary. Ugrešić’ compared the then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, to the leadership in her broken home country in the wake of war. Invoking an immense world at the mercy of bad leaders, Ugrešić’ said of Trump: “He’s showing vividly that something is wrong with all of us, if we are able to have such leaders.” She went on to say of her “poor Yugoslavia”: “It had the most stupid leaders you can imagine.” Such leaders, she told Byrd, “just eat these countries like chocolate.”

Update April 10: Lit Hub has published wonderful remembrances of Ugrešić’ by five translators of her work, Celia Hawkesworth, Mark Thompson, David Williams, Vlad Beronja, and Ellen Elias-Bursać, who offers an introduction to this “expatriate citizen of the Republic of World Letters.”

Experimental Victorians

I have always viewed Victorian novels — at least my favorite ones — as profoundly strange, so I found such satisfaction in reading Elaine Freedgood’s Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel. Freedgood looks at how critics came to interpret the genre of the Victorian novel as more straightforwardly realistic and formally cohesive than it is.

Her argument is clear, her jokes, funny. I found the book particularly fun to read as someone who adores how Victorian novelists can make the world turn strangely, as Dickens does in Our Mutual Friend in a dinner-party scene that Freedgood addresses. She specifically examines J. Hillis Miller‘s critical interpretation of this scene in which the narrator looks down at events from the perspective of a mirror in the dining room. This mirror reflects the party’s two hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, and their guests:

The great looking-glass above the sideboard, reflects the table and the company. Reflects the new Veneering crest, in gold and eke in silver, frosted and also thawed, a camel of all work….Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly, mysterious, filmy—a kind of sufficiently well-looking veiled-prophet, not prophesying. Reflects Mrs Veneering; fair, aquiline-nosed and fingered, not so much light hair as she might have, gorgeous in raiment and jewels, enthusiastic, propitiatory, conscious that a corner of her husband’s veil is over herself. Reflects Podsnap; prosperously feeding, two little light-coloured wiry wings, one on either side of his else bald head, looking as like his hairbrushes as his hair, dissolving view of red beads on his forehead, large allowance of crumpled shirt-collar up behind. Reflects Mrs Podsnap; fine woman for Professor Owen, quantity of bone, neck and nostrils like a rocking-horse, hard features, majestic head-dress in which Podsnap has hung golden offerings.

That a mirror won’t — and can’t — stop reflecting is realistic, and so is the spinning world that its perspective creates. But Freedgood reminds us of the great gap between this narrating voice that inhabits a looking-glass and the authoritative human narrator that has come to be closely associated with the Victorian novel.

Ekphrasis in Fiction: George Eliot’s Influence on Vincent Van Gogh

After hearing scholar Ruth Livesey speak on George Eliot’s influence on Vincent Van Gogh last fall, I had to broaden my ideas of the possible effects that painters and novelists can have on each other. Livesey, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, came to the University of Tennessee last October to talk about how Eliot’s fiction shaped Van Gogh’s painting. Her fascinating scholarship on the subject is now available at 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Her article illuminates not only how Van Gogh drew upon Eliot’s fiction but also how Eliot found inspiration in Dutch realist painters, including Gerrit Dou and Teniers.

By analyzing Eliot’s and Van Gogh’s relationships to both visual and literary art, Livesey uncovers what she calls “the radical experimentalism” of Eliot’s earlier fiction. In general, critics solely recognize the clear experimentalism of Eliot’s later work. This less conventional, late fiction includes one narrative about the authorial ambitions of single-celled parasites (Impressions of Theophrastus Such) and a novelistic exploration of Kabbalistic beliefs about souls entering new bodies (Daniel Deronda).

Livesey, though, reveals the subtler radical choices that Eliot made in her early fiction, such as the 1859 novel, Adam Bede, which aesthetically represents peasants with unusual depth. According to Livesey, Eliot endowed her working-class characters with an inward consciousness that traditionally the peasantry had been denied in art. So from underneath a peasant’s dusty face, for instance, we can glimpse the blush of desire.

Livesey, referring to the scholarship of Ronald Pickvance, examines the association that Van Gogh made in his letters between Dickens’s and Eliot’s disparate versions of realism. Van Gogh connected Dickens’s realism with visual art rendered in black and white, while he associated Eliot’s with forms that integrated color with characters complexly bound to the landscape. Livesey analyzes how Eliot, unlike Dickens, believed that harsh social conditions shape the individual; Eliot’s working-class characters, therefore, are part of the harsh landscapes in which they live. But while these characters take on the grays and browns of their environment, they never lose the hues, such as the blush of a passionate thought, that reveal their individual subjectivity.

Livesey’s treatment of color, character, and social and natural landscapes is enough to recommend the article, but her analysis of perspective and narrative progression makes this scholarship even more valuable to those who, like me, use visual art to inspire their own fiction and their teaching of creative and critical writing.

Article in Dickens Studies Annual

I wrote an article about Dickens’s 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the US, American Notes. In the article, I discuss how Dickens uses the elements of the pastoral, a poetic genre usually associated with natural beauty and pretty lasses, to deliver a strong political message. The article is available on Humanities Commons; the abstract is below:

In his 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens used the pastoral mode to deliver a strong message about labor. To communicate this message, he employed the mode’s many traits, including its retreat into and return from the rural landscape and its focus on the country worker, traditionally the shepherd. This essay follows the novel’s pastoral retreat into the United States, where young Martin comes to understand the realities of manual labor through his physical interactions with the American landscape. His companion, Mark Tapley, meanwhile, performs the emotional labor of the servant by initially shielding middle-class Martin from this painful knowledge. Both men, however, must confront manual labor on a massive scale upon reaching “Eden,” a hideous landscape that Dickens constructed referring to passages from his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the United States, American Notes. The landscape in Eden documents the decaying atmosphere of slavery as recorded in Dickens’s travelogue. It also recreates for Martin the physical experience that Dickens had as a child of entering a vast, foreign world of factory work. Ultimately, Dickens’s uses the pastoral to uncover a horror that usually lies beneath a beautiful surface: that the civilized landscape demands enslaved or nearly enslaved labor for its construction.

Critical Article on George Eliot

For the past three years, I have been studying creative writing and nineteenth-century British literature at the University of Tennessee where I am a Ph.D. candidate. In my first semester, I began writing about kabbalistic astronomy and astrology in George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda. I later expanded my study of Eliot’s mystical astral symbolism to include not only her last novel but her earlier epic poem, The Spanish Gypsy. In both works, Eliot offers Jewish mystics as characters: in Spanish Gypsy, she creates a Jewish astrologer who gives the hero advice; in Daniel Deronda, she has a kabbalistic visionary who emerges as an important figure in the novel’s middle and later chapters.

My completed article has just come out in George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies. In the essay, I explore how, in Daniel Deronda, Eliot moved the character of the mystic from the periphery to the center of the narrative. This change, symbolically equated within the novel to a shift from geocentricism to heliocentricism, affects time in Daniel Deronda both in terms of plot and historical focus. Not only does time slow as the mystic, Mordecai, assumes a central role, the astral imagery begins to draw upon a medieval past when Jewish thinkers explored interdisciplinary concepts of the heavens inspired by both poetry and the science of their time. I argue for the centrality of the astronomical imagery in relation to the Jewish themes of Daniel Deronda and show through my analysis of The Spanish Gypsy how Eliot employed kabbalistic ideas of the skies in an attempt to create a new vision of star-crossed love for literature.

To view the article, click here.

To read my earlier review of Anna Henchman’s book, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, which also appeared in George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies, go here.

Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants

Recent reviews of Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants reveal a similar slant. This bias is a subtle turning away – momentary and understandable – from the hardships of the servants whom Light profiles. With unflinching care, Light looks at the women who worked for Virginia Woolf as domestics. The result is a profound, fascinating biography and one of the best books I have read in recent years.

Light takes us from Woolf’s Victorian childhood to her death in 1941. During these years in England, housework drastically changed because of the increased use of indoor plumbing and improvements in stoves. Early on in Virginia Woolf’s life, the servants around her not only lit and stoked fires but hauled water, both boiled and cold, up several flights of stairs. On their way down, they brought chamber pots to be “scoured in the ‘slop-room’ where the row of brass cans stood.” The work was filthy and hard – the water buckets each weighed around thirty pounds – and the labor denigrated by the upper classes.

Publicly Virginia Woolf spoke of women with sympathy, but privately she wrote about her female servants with viciousness. She once remarked in her journals: “The poor have no chance; no manners of self-control to protect themselves with; we have a monopoly of all of the generous feelings.” The comment was inspired by a request for a raise from her longtime servant, Lottie Hope, whom Woolf admitted “work[ed] like a horse.” The wages Woolf paid were often low.

Light presents Woolf’s classism matter-of-factly. I disagree with Claire Messud, who says in her review in The New York Times that Light is “surprisingly waspish about Virginia’s blindness to her snobberies.” It is Woolf’s own waspishness that delivers the shock. Light ends up creating a deeply sympathetic portrait of the author by showing Woolf’s real need for care. Messud goes on to note this sympathy, saying that Light is “quick to acknowledge, too, the mutual dependence of mistress and servant.”

This phrase about dependence recalls a line from Light’s book. About Woolf and her servant of eighteen years Nellie Boxall, Light writes: “This was a story of mutual — and unequal — dependence.” And indeed the dependence was lopsided. Woolf got more from Boxall than she returned in pay, and the two fought frequently. While these emotionally charged conflicts never put Woolf in danger of losing her home, they did for Boxall since she lived with her employer.

Boxall did have certain advantages working for the unconventional writer. She didn’t have to wear a uniform or address her employer as “ma’am.” Woolf clearly saw the benefits her servants enjoyed. In her essay “Character in Fiction,” she famously described the modern servant as being relatively free. She asserted that while the “Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths,” the “Georgian cook” was “a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat.”

Light quotes this passage, and so does Mona Simpson in her review of Light’s book for The Atlantic. About Nellie, Simpson wisely adds: “Part of the difficulty of the job must have been the emotional component that required her to act the part of an equal – a daughter or a friend – while bringing Woolf food on a tray and washing her chemises.”

Mona Simpson also empathizes with Woolf at other points in her review, which isn’t difficult; Light shows a deep understanding not only of Woolf’s psychology but her circumstances. She for instance talks about how the Woolfs were not rich when they married: “Nothing in those early years was secure, except for [Virginia’s] private income, and even that must stretch to cover two.”

Simpson brings up this financial insecurity while discussing the couple’s stance on plumbing. For years, the Woolfs refused to install flush toilets, a decision that certainly had to do with money, although in the case of Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, who came to the same decision, the choice was also a “moral” one: he found indoor plumbing “mildly corrupting.” About his and his daughter’s idea to go with chamber pots, Simpson remarks: “This must have been exceedingly frustrating for the servants, to whom the Stephens and the Woolfs seemed rich. Why wouldn’t these people pay for the new, sanitary plumbing?”

Ultimately Mona Simpson’s sympathy for the Woolfs in this instance is misplaced since, as Light explains, it wasn’t solely the couple’s refusal to update the WCs that caused problems with the servants. It was their frugality with plumbing coupled with their generosity about having houseguests. The guests needed meals, which they, in turn, transformed into material for the chamber pots, a kind of bookkeeping of the body that the servants understood all too well. They had to stand up to the Woolfs to get another worker brought into Asheham House, the couple’s home in Sussex. In the end, they prevailed, and someone was hired to help with “emptying the chamber-pots (at the most sociable times at Asheham the volume of such work makes one shudder).”

It is hard not to look away from these servants’ lives as these reviewers do at moments. With Messud, this shift comes with a subtle change of words, a loss of the idea of inequality in the discussion of “mutual dependence.” With Simpson, it entails a brief looking away from scatological details — an understandable reaction. The servants’ work, both its volume and quality, truly “makes one shudder.” If Light were to focus solely on this domestic work, the book would be almost impossible to read. She, however, also looks at Woolf’s struggle to reconcile her concept of personal freedom with her dependency on servants. The resulting analysis is riveting; most reviews have discussed it. But there is another equally absorbing element that has gone unexamined in the reviews I have seen: Light’s analysis of how the servants coped.

And here Light looks at laughter. The servants of Bloomsbury, when interviewed for the B.B.C. in the 1950s, laughed frequently while recounting life with the Woolfs. Nellie Boxall and Lottie Hope shaped an account of the home that at times turned farcical. Lottie, describing mornings with the couple, spoke of having “to clean while Mr Woolf took his bath behind a curtain, then breakfasted, and the same performance all over again while Mrs Woolf took hers.” Nellie then interjected, “Yes, it was bread one end and bath the other!” And both of them laughed. In the final broadcast, though, both the laugher and the comments were edited down, causing Light to speculate: “Too much like saying, perhaps, that the Emperor had no clothes.”

Light, looking at the Emperor, creates a profound portrait of disparate lives: Virginia Woolf’s, Nettie Boxall’s, Lottie Hope’s. Some readers may flinch at the hardship behind the servants’ humor; others may not want to hear the laughter itself, even though Light describes it with complex beauty. About another servant, Happy Sturgeon, who also laughed during her interview, Light writes: “Her laugher was…that of a survivor. A defense against the painful feelings these memories might stir…She laughed with relief, but anyone who wanted to understand what it was like to be in service might listen to the laughter as much as words.” Happy’s pain was as hard as her humor. At the end of her life, she and her husband, also born into poverty, found some justice too. As Happy explained: “We’ve got all the material things we want, and we’ve got family – ’cause he had the same sort of experience – poor little boy on the farm – ‘open that gate, boy, or you get the riding crop across your shoulders’, you know – [she laughs].”

Originally posted on 5.17.2009

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men

I was reminded recently, when coming in from the cold, of a chill from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. So I reread the classic book of black folk tales, waiting for that chill to come. It arrives in the form of some practical advice from an older man named Dad Boykin. Dad interrupts the storytelling going on around him to explain how best to get warm. What my mind did with his advice since I last read Mules and Men is a story in itself. Or the absence of a story, a cold shutting-out of folk tales.

“You young poots won’t lissen to nothin’!” Dad interjects soon after someone else tells a story about “de King of de Beasts,” the lion. What Dad has to say has nothing to do with these sorts of magical animals found throughout the book. His words are purely pragmatic: “Not a one of you knows how to warm hisself right and youse so hard-headed you don’t want to be teached.” He goes on to advise sitting right in front of a fireplace, not off in the “chimbley corner.” And from the center, it’s best to turn around — “dat’s to knock de breezes offen yo’ back.”

It chilled me years ago to listen to Dad describe just how the body gets cold when exposed to wind. “You know, all de time youse outside in the weather, de li’l breezes and winds is jumpin’ on yo’ back and crawlin’ down yo’ neck, to hide.” It still chills me, although not as much. When I was younger, I saw Dad’s advice as a long-winded, cold interruption of the fantastic tales. I wanted to hear more about talking animals and God and the devil. When I reread the book, I was surprised to find that Dad speaks for only a few paragraphs. His monologue was longer in my memory. His words had acted like “li’l breezes and winds” that had hid inside my mind and spread.

So here is my advice: When a book comes to you in a shiver, reread it and see how it has changed while hiding inside of you.

Originally posted on 2.9.2009

Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style

The “style” in the subtitle of Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style refers to a line from Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.” Melville writes of a couple of ships have just come to shore: “To be brief, the two vessels, thanks to the pilot’s skill, ere long in neighborly style lay anchored together.” Wallace explores a proximity between Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass not unlike that of the ships. Early in their public lives, the men lived not far from each other in three cities: New Bedford, Albany and New York.

Did they ever meet? There is no evidence they did. But Wallace sets out to show that the men knew each other’s work. The thesis is simple to prove when it comes to Douglass’s awareness of Melville. In his newspaper the North Star, Douglass published a portion of Melville’s book Typee. Also included in the paper in the 1850s were references to both Melville’s novel Moby Dick and his novella “Israel Potter.”

It is harder to show Melville’s knowledge of Douglass’s speeches and writings. Wallace tries with a detailed, clear analysis of the men’s work. Looking at Douglass’s famous lecture about “Self-Help” alongside Moby Dick, Wallace suggests the former profoundly influenced the latter. Douglass gave his lecture in New York in 1849 when Melville was living in the City too. The day after Douglass gave the speech, a local paper, the Herald, quoted some of his words: “Colored people are now beginning to exercise their gifts. They are now in a position to be heard. But we have no organization among ourselves, in the Ishmaelitish situation in which we are.” Did this reference to Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham, later shape both the name and perspective of the narrator of Moby Dick? Wallace thinks so: “When Melville’s narrator invites his reader to ‘Call me Ishmael,’ he identifies with Douglass and other black Americans in the ‘Ishmaelitish situation’ while also declaring his own separation from the mainstream white American culture.”

The fictional Ishmael may have lived apart from this culture while on a racially integrated ship; Melville, however, was caught in the mechanics of white supremacy. His father-in-law, Chef Justice Shaw in Massachusetts, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The law directly threatened ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass by sending them back south. To get beyond the reach of the law, Douglass had to purchase his own freedom with money from friends in England.

Still Melville, in spite of his morally compromised position, managed to address a black readership in his time. Wallace, a Melville scholar, makes some of his most interesting points when discussing how the author accomplished this task. Wallace, evoking DuBois’s concept of “double consciousness,” says Melville developed “a double vision” that allowed him to talk to white and black audiences at the same time. Wallace further explains: “Melville symbolizes his own double vision in ‘The Sperm Whale’s Head’ in Moby Dick, imploring his reader to develop the imaginative equivalent of the whale’s optical ability to see in ‘exactly opposite directions’ in one combining act of vision.”

To expand upon this idea: in “Benito Cereno,” a story about a slave insurrection, this double vision comes together like two ships moving into shore. They arrive with different crews, navigated separately, but come together, “thanks to the pilot’s skill.” Melville, writing with his unique sense of mystery, gives the vessels one pilot, like a lowercase god.

Originally posted on 10.29.2008