English and American Literature

1. Chaucer: a European life
Turner, Marion. Princeton, 2019

Organized around place rather chronologically, Turner’s literary biography of Chaucer offers an encyclopedic survey of the world in which the poet circulated and developed his unique poetic perspective and voice. From the spaces of his early life in London and at court, to the sites of his European travels, to the more metaphorical places explored in his poetry, the Chaucer that emerges from this study is decidedly urban and cosmopolitan, well connected to a wide range of communities both local and international, and politically and bureaucratically savvy as he navigates the massive political and economic changes of the latter half of the 14th century. Turner (Jesus College, Univ. of Oxford, UK) reads Chaucer’s poetry in light of these experiences, demonstrating how they contributed to the development of his distinctive poetic voice, which came to emphasize movement and dynamism, diversity and difference, multiplicity of perspectives and voicings, process, networks, surfaces, and thresholds. Chaucer’s “spatial poetics” (p. 365) thus informs and is informed by the actual spaces he moved among over the course of his life.
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2. Failures of feeling: insensibility and the novel
Lee, Wendy Anne. Stanford, 2019

The affective turn that has swept through the humanities and social sciences has given scholars of 18th-century literature and philosophy a home court advantage. As Lee (New York Univ.) puts it in the introduction to this remarkable book, “Every philosopher of the Enlightenment was also a theorist of affect.” Lee’s breakthrough move is to turn this preoccupation on its head by focusing on how insensibility and its short-circuiting of affect paradoxically incites both passionate investment and narrative itself. From impassive sovereigns to marble-hearted protagonists arrayed in “affective chainmail,” 18th-century novelists could not resist the way in which insensibility disrupted easy ideals of gender and sympathy even as it destabilized the expectation that novels should disclose the rich volatility of any character’s interior existence. Lee traces insensibility from “the unlikely stock figure of the prude” to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”—from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe to George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth.
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3. Inventing Edward Lear
Lodge, Sara. Harvard, 2019

Training an academic sensibility on literary nonsense can have unfortunate results, but Lodge (Univ. of St. Andrews, UK) brings to this wide-ranging study of Edward Lear (1812–88) a combination of erudition and enthusiasm. Lodge is a specialist in 19th-century English culture and literature, and here she covers the entire range of Lear’s career, analyzing not only his familiar nonsense verse and art for children, but also his musical settings, natural history illustrations, and landscape paintings. Throughout, Lodge emphasizes how Lear’s aesthetics—in both serious and comic modes—rely heavily on busting open assumptions about category differences. Love affairs happen across species; illustrated birds seem to be scrutinizing the scientific viewer; Lear’s painting Beachy Head (1862) “dramatically alienates England” by linking it to the Arctic. Lear’s language itself, with its coinages, onomatopoeias, and puns, refuses to settle nicely. Similarly, Lear’s frustration with orthodox Christianity manifests itself in his playful subversions of catechetical and biblical language. Arguably, Lodge’s most groundbreaking work in this volume resides in her recuperation of Lear as a musician and performer and in her willingness to take Lear’s Pre-Raphaelitism seriously.
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4. John Donne in context
ed. by Michael Schoenfeldt Cambridge, 2019

Some 400 years separate us from Donne (1572–1631), so the references in his poetry and prose have become obscure. And because Donne already has a reputation as a difficult poet, addressing this problem is all the more pressing. Schoenfeldt (Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor) does it well. He did a wonderful job of assembling top scholars working in Donne studies today. Most of the essays run to fewer than 15 pages, and each is dedicated to a different aspect of Donne’s writings or world. Poetry, prose, and sermons are covered, and the topics include, among many other things, law, medicine, education, money, and sexuality. Taken together the essays do an outstanding job of fleshing out early modern England. From the excellent timeline that introduces the life of Donne through the suggested further readings at the end of the volume, everything in this book is worth reading and considering.
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5. Literature, American style: the originality of imitation in the early Republic
Tawil, Ezra F. Pennsylvania, 2018

Tawil (Univ. of Rochester) argues that aspects of literary style that have been cited as characteristic of American literature derive from and actively engage with European literary traditions that consider similar issues. Tawil addresses a range of iconic early authors, including Noah Webster, Michel-Guillaume-Saint-Jean de Crèvecoeur, Charles Brockden Brown, Hannah Webster Foster, and Royall Tyler. From Webster’s linguistic reform of the English language to American authors’ versions of sentimental fiction, Tawil demonstrates that the very texts that posit original American stylistic qualities also derive from, imitate, or respond to European sources. This book deeply enriches and gives nuance to understanding of those texts, expanding the cultural influences to which they respond.
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6. Lyrical liberators: the American antislavery movement in verse, 1831-1865
ed. by Monica Pelaez Ohio University, 2018

Drawing from eight prominent antislavery publications, Pelaez (English, St. Cloud State Univ.) has compiled a stirring anthology of antebellum and wartime verse—what she calls “agitator” verse. The volume distinguishes itself from kindred anthologies—The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764–1865, ed. by Marcus Wood (CH, Sep’04, 42-0170); Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, 1660–1810, ed. by James Basker (CH, May’03, 40-5065)—by focusing solely on the recovery of poetry found in American abolitionist periodicals of the immediate pre-war and war periods. After broadly introducing the corpus and contexts, Pelaez presents 13 chronologically arranged thematic units of poetry, each with its own introduction, footnotes, and end notes. In the introduction the author claims that the selections offer a “quintessential overview of the various discourses” that captured the public’s attention and resonated within the moral, rhetorical, and political skirmishes fought in the press, but she offers only four sentences on the criteria for the inclusion or representativeness of the 161 poems beyond thematic affinity.
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