English 250

Research Seminar: Ways of Knowing, Ways of Representing in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2020 Sorensen, Janet
M 3-6 186 Barrows


In this course we will read the early English fiction once associated with "the rise of the novel" with a view to the strategies this writing deployed to address new epistemological challenges. An expanding empire, an urbanizing nation (recently transformed by the Union of Scotland and England), the abstractions of a credit economy and financial markets, new optical technologies, and an exploding print market—all posed and demanded new ways of knowing. How did the generic experiments of early fiction and its rhetorical figures (including ramblers, letter writers, talking things, omniscient narrators) explore and represent these new ways of knowing? How did they render visible some sense of social organization and cohesion? How did early fiction deploy and develop empiricism and moral philosophy as ways of knowing? How did radical empiricism and gothic writing extend and revise the understanding of those ways of knowing? We shall be especially interested in questioning why it was that in a society imagined to be increasingly more complex, its members (and economic relations) spread more remotely, representation, nonetheless, often focused on local and everyday, usually domestic, objects and practices, on familiar elements that had heretofore gone unregarded. How did the objects and strategies involved in representing the particular (a specifc character, a quality of light) invoke something more general, and the local, something more distant? What bearing might Britain's status as a maritime empire have had on its technologies and dynamics of fictional representation? While our focus will be on emerging forms of prose fiction, we will supplement this reading with some poetry and new popular genres such as the periodical essay, voyage writing, and the vernacular dictionary, and even some painting (Golden Age still life painting of the Netherlands, works of William Hogarth). NB: those new to eighteenth-century writing are welcome.

We will likely read works by John Locke, Aphra Behn, Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, David Hume, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Jane Austen.

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