Victorian Britain in the Mile High City

Today’s guest blogger is Jennifer R. Henneman, who holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Washington, and is Assistant Curator of Western American Art at the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. Jennifer’s interdisciplinary transatlantic research, which has taken her from the wilds of the American West to the cosmopolitan streets of London, reflects her own upbringing on a cattle ranch in Montana and her interest in the dominant cultural and artistic spheres of the late Victorian era. In addition to creating exhibitions for the Denver Art Museum, Jennifer currently pursues a book project on the 1887 American Exhibition in London.

My daily walk to work at the Denver Art Museum includes a southward view down Broadway, one of Denver, Colorado’s primary north-south thoroughfares. Above the westward skyline rises “Jonas Bros / Furs” in red neon letters. A legacy of the city’s 1920s urban landscape, the sign towers over the art deco building out of which the Denver branch of the Jonas Brothers’ taxidermy and fur company operated for much of the 20th century.[1]

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Photo courtesy of the author.

The success of the Jonas Brothers’ firm was built on a 19th century tradition of big game hunting in the Colorado Rockies and its associated industry, taxidermy, which reached highest popularity during the latter part of that century. Lately, taxidermy is much on my mind as I consider the ramifications of North American hunting trophies exhibited within the Fine Arts Galleries of the American Exhibition in London of 1887, an event best known for hosting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West on its first tour abroad. I am interested in the strangeness of the Fine Art Galleries, in which the moulded forms of animal bodies held court adjacent to over a thousand works of American art. Hunted by British sportsmen in North America, these trophies reinforced active British participation in America’s westward expansion, and remind me of the imperial footprints left by such hunters in my current Colorado vicinity.

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“Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times

[This post is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2016 gathering of the North American Victorian Studies Association].

In the Winter 2016 semester, I had one of those moments in an undergraduate seminar on the topic of “Victorian Bodies” when I recognized that my students finally understood the overall rationale and scope for a reading strategy I had been trying to instill in them. We were discussing Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which became my student’s favorite text in our reading list. I was trying my best to show students how Stevenson’s descriptions of Hyde’s strangely unknowable body relates to the broader problem of the body in Victorian literature and culture. In short, the problem I wanted my students to see was the human body’s conceptual and categorical evasion of any kind of rational or utopian system of management or classification. Clearly, this slipperiness of the body’s indexicality relates well to Jekyll and Hyde’s gothic narrative, but my intentions were grander. I was pushing my students toward a reading of the unmediated thingness of the body – the Real that cannot be completely touched by any Imaginary or Symbolic register. At one point in our discussion of Hyde’s body, one of my students put up their hand to ask a question. I could see in this student’s face that some kind of lightbulb had gone off. “Does Hyde’s body relate to Dicken’s notion of “awful unknown quantities” in Hard Times?” my student asked. As I nodded my head in the affirmative, my student continued: “huh, I think I’m finally starting to see how the novels we’ve been reading all relate to each other. At first, I thought they were all so different.”

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What’s in a year?

Origin_of_SpeciesThis post begins with an observation: a number of very important books were published in England in 1859. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty appeared in February, followed by Alexander Bain’s The Emotions and the Will in the spring, and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help in November. This seems striking to me, but is it? I’m tempted to see these publications as part of some kind of ‘cultural moment.’ If anything connects these disparate books, it might be an interest in free will. They all grapple with what it Bain, a prominent Scottish philosopher, calls the “Free-will controversy.” Continue reading “What’s in a year?”

“A vagrant of the sea”: Introducing Morgan Robertson

I teach at a beautiful campus on the southern shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego, New York. Oswego is a place of remarkable history. Its geographical position relative to waterways and other supply routes through central New York made it the target of military tussling between French and British forces during the Seven Years’ War and between American and British forces during the War of 1812. The Oswego Canal, completed in 1828, connected the epic Erie Canal system to Lake Ontario, thus accelerating Oswego’s contribution to the anthropogenic remaking of the Great Lakes ecosystem that’s been ongoing since the seventeenth century. Oswego was a launching-point to Canada for those traveling on the Underground Railway; its library, founded in 1853 on a principle of universal access for all persons, regardless of “their race, complexion, or condition,” is the oldest continuously operating public library in New York State (“About Us.”). In 1943, Oswego became the site of the single World War II refugee camp in the United States.

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Victorian Education: April 28-29, 2017

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the joint conference of the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada and the Victorian Studies Association of the Western United States, whose theme this year was Victorian education. As the conference Storify attests, we gathered for two days of conversation about research and teaching on a wide range of associated topics, including Victorian food education and activism; the relationship between queer identity and instruction; representations of embodied learning; religious and imperial education systems; and the production of school textbooks. The great weather in beautiful Vancouver—defying forecasts for unremitting drizzle—made those two days even more delightful. Continue reading “Victorian Education: April 28-29, 2017”

On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton

This week’s guest, Thomas A. Laughlin, has a PhD in English from the University of Toronto.

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William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor, 1852

“Mrs. Gaskell could not just give what we would now call a ‘slice of life,’ partly because she wanted to offer more, but also partly because the novel as a form was felt to require movement, the progress of a story. This is the problem of form. Mrs. Gaskell has to overcome the difficulty that whereas her strength lies in evocation, description, analysis of a situation, the strength of the novel seemed to lie in the fact that it could absorb readers in a story, that is, that it worked through plot.” (Gill 22)

This is the famous contradiction and tension at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel, Mary Barton. The novel gathers more content and conflicts than its narrative can adequately process. The plot, we have to admit, isn’t the greatest. Nor is there much satisfaction to be derived from the characters, who, in my opinion, are obstinately and unbelievably single-minded in their concerns and pursuits. But personally, I like that it begins in the countryside, dwells in the twisted streets and back alleys of a Manchester working-class neighborhood, traverses both the factory floor and the union meeting, brings back news of the Chartists’ disappointed presentation of the People’s Charter to the Parliament in London, connects the working class to the wandering “lumpen” masses, involves a secret assassination plot, follows Mary to Liverpool and almost all the way out to sea, has a courtroom melodrama, and ends with Mary and Jem emigrating to Canada! There is a kind of topographic euphoria in the novel—a will to connect and “complete,” as Eric Hayot might say (see Hayot 60-67). Each topos is as vivid and valid—that is, as believable and necessary—as the previous, even if their relationship remains arbitrary, a connecting contingency of geography. Continue reading “On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton”