Seminars

Seminars

In the spirit of the conference, these seminars encourage conversations that cross over borders and feature colleagues at different stages of their academic career. Each participant submits a short position paper on the seminar theme which will then be discussed on the day. Please submit a 150 to 250 word outline of what you would present on. Seminar participants will be listed in the program. You can apply to be on both a seminar and to give an individual paper. 

The seminar sessions are:

Israel Potter: The Great American Transatlantic Novel? (led by Robert S. Levine, University of Maryland)

Melville and Biography (led by John L. Bryant, Hofstra University)

Melville and the Non-Human (led by Dana Luciano, Georgetown University, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Pomona College)

For full details of these seminars, see below.

Deadline: September 15 2016

Submission Email: melvilleatkings@gmail.com (please indicate which seminar you are applying for in the subject line, “Potter Seminar,” “Biography Seminar,” “Non-Human Seminar,” or “British Critics Seminar” followed by your surname, then first name.)

Israel Potter: The Great American Transatlantic Novel?

Seminar Leader: Robert S. Levine (University of Maryland)

The notion of the “great American novel” is one that has had considerable critical and cultural traction since the Civil War, when the phrase first emerged, to the present day, in the work of Lawrence Buell. But in the wake of the transnational turn, it is a phrase whose purchase on literature would appear to have weakened somewhat. That a text could ever represent an entity as diverse, cross-cut, and uneven as the United States seems, at best, fanciful, at worst, deeply ideologically suspect.

Yet, within transnational critique the idea that a novel might express the spirit of a particular place seems as active as ever. However, there have not been many coherent attempts to conceptualize precisely what an exemplary or emblematic transatlantic novel might be. This seminar seeks to fill that critical lacuna by casting Israel Potter, a text that has long been at the margins of Melville studies, as a potential candidate for the great transatlantic novel.

We welcome seminar papers that consider Israel Potter in this light: potential topics might include its problematic position in the Melville canon, its relationship to Atlantic history, the notion of “minor” works, and questions of book history, plagiarism, and physical geography. In light of the conference theme, papers also might consider the various crossings that take place in the text: over class boundaries, between monumental and marginalised history, over national borders, historical periods, states of freedom and unfreedom, and other things beside, and how these crossings contribute to wider issues about canonicity, anthologisation, and representativeness.

At base, what this seminar will consider, then, is the extent to which Israel Potter’s unsettled place in Melville studies and nineteenth-century literary studies more generally might arise out of the strange conceptual universe that emerges from its geographical position as transatlantic rather than strictly national piece of work.

Melville and Biography

Seminar Leader: John L. Bryant (Hofstra University)

For decades, critics have challenged the status of literary biography through favoring modes of reading that emphasise less the creative process of authors than their place within a larger socio-historical network that rises beyond their individual circumstances. Accordingly, critics have been ill-at-ease in tracing the always fragile and evasive links between a particular author’s experiences and their oeuvre.  

This seminar will consider the status of literary biography in the light of these shifts in the critical field. We will be taking Melville as emblematic of such changes, as he was deeply invested in reckoning with the transformation from lived experience to the printed page, considering often the eerie transplant that took place between authorial mind, the written text, and the creative hand: as he had it in a letter to Duyckinck, “taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety.”

Moreover, given the cult of personality that has surrounded the writer, from Raymond Weaver’s Mariner and Mystic to Ron Howard’s hagiographical In the Heart of the Sea, Melville offers a particularly redolent example of the historical stakes of writing biography and functions, accordingly, as a lightning rod for broader socio-historical transformations in life writing as well as for popular cults of literary personality.

As such, in this seminar on biography, we invite papers that not only bring to light new information about Melville’s life and times, but also actively encourage those that consider how we might use Melville to refigure our methodological approaches to biography, as well as those that reflect critically on the history of Melvillean biography and its broader social and critical valences. 

Melville and the Non-Human

Seminar Leaders: Dana Luciano (Georgetown University) and Kyla Wazana Tompkins (Pomona College)

In the last few years, scholars in a number of fields have sought to expand upon critical theory’s rejection of humanism by decentering the form of the “human” itself. Some have focused on things—animals, objects, land- and seascapes—that seemingly exceed or disrupt the representational logic of the human. Others have explored whether an attention to matter and materiality might produce a more expansive theoretical politics or an alternate political sensorium. This set of reflections also demands renewed and newly nuanced attention to how social and material processes of dehumanization operate.

In this seminar, we will consider how Melville might guide us in these still-new critical terrains. Melville is, after all, a writer who dwells on the moveable and permeable boundary between man and (seemingly) non-human others. Be it whales that appear to possess a cryptic intentionality, workers who function more like machines, or mountains that appear to speak, Melville’s writing might well be considered an extended philosophical meditation on the blurred zones of categorical indistinctness that actively shape the definition of what it means to be human.

Paper topics might focus on Melville’s treatment of: animals, rocks, machines, matter, things, sense and sensation, vegetable life, and technology. While retaining such a focus, papers should attempt to reach out to wider critical and theoretical questions concerning the Anthropocene, race, labor, gender and sexuality, animacy and enchantment, and other recent reconsiderations of the human/non-human border zone.

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