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.

Continue reading “Victorian Britain in the Mile High City”

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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.”

Continue reading ““Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times”

Notes on the Economics of Library Economy

Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau ...: A Handbook of Library and Office ... Library Bureau, 1890. Web. Page 49
Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau: A Handbook of Library and Office. Library Bureau, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. Page 49

While in Middlemarch, published serially in 1871 and 1872, dear Dorothea suffered great “annoyance at being twitted with her ignorance of political economy, that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights” (Eliot 42) there were many other economies being developed in the 1870s which would rely on women as employees and proselytizers. I will leave domestic economy to the side for the nonce — it’s the economy of knowledge storage devices and spelling reform that has my interest.

I have completely fallen for the late-century American passion for efficiency experts, so once again will, at the risk of taxing Victorian Studies readers, offer up a post that features more American cousins rather than British ones. I had touched earlier in this blog on the invention of the vertical file. I’d like to pick up where I left off with a few remarks about the company the marketed the vertical file, the Library Bureau and the Bureau’s founder, that great promoter of “library economy,” Melvil Dewey (Classification 5). I’ve been dipping of late into Dewey’s “Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women”, published by the Library Bureau, while Dewey was Columbia University’s chief librarian. Continue reading “Notes on the Economics of Library Economy”

Teaching the Dramatic Monologue

If your syllabus looks anything like mine, at least once a semester you’re dusting off your Tennyson and Browning skills and teaching the dramatic monologue. My personal favourites to teach are “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” (Day One) and then “Tithonous,” “Ulysses,” and “St Simeon Stylites” (Day Two).

This semester I decided to do something a little different. I have the privilege of teaching my Victorian literature class in one of the fancy new classrooms at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. My 40-person class has six big touch screens, and as a result we’ve been able to do a lot of hands-on work in small groups leading into discussions with the whole class. Continue reading “Teaching the Dramatic Monologue”

Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama

Of all of Dickens’s prose non-fiction, the one piece that has consistently troubled me the most since I started thinking about Dickens’s journalism and its bearing on the prehistory of immersive media spectacles is “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller,” published in Household Words in April, 1850. A typical Dickensian flight of Fancy, this notice introduces readers to the figure of Mr. Booley, who at the age of 65, “left England for the first time” (511) on a series of trips around the world. “Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful,” Dickens writes: “All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alterations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity for travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books […] Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind” (511-12). Readers follow this account of Mr. Booley’s travels, which take him to such far-off locales as New Orleans in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, India, and the Arctic regions of the World, before reading in Booley’s own words the inspiration for his “roving spirit” (515): Continue reading “Dickens’s Extraordinary Traveller: Immersive Media Forms and the World as Panorama”

The Transatlantic Digital Moonstone

the title page of the Moonstone shows an illustration of a naval scene.
The Moonstone, Harper’s Weekly, 1868-05-23. Image digitized by Melanie Radford, courtesy of Special Collections University of Calgary Library.

In my senior seminar on “The Victorian Bestseller,” we’ve just finished a big class project. When I found out that our Special Collections at the University of Calgary holds both of the periodicals in which Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) was originally serialized–Harper’s Weekly in the U.S. and All the Year Round in the UK–the opportunity to get students into rare books and thinking about the material culture of the text was too good to pass up. In conjunction with Special Collections, the assignment I devised asked each student to take on one of the thirty-two parts The Moonstone originally appeared in, and to compare and contrast its publication in Harper’s and All the Year Round. Students selected and annotated about half a dozen images from the periodicals–which could be anything from advertisements, to illustrations, to the articles and fiction that appeared alongside the novel–to make an argument about the difference the publishing context makes to the reading experience. They then used Omeka to mount a digital exhibit showcasing what they had found in the archives. Our class archive now explores 13 out of 32 parts of the novel, leaving room for another class to try this project again.

The results were fascinating. Students found everything from advertisements for diamonds to articles on the colonies and knots and riddles–important contexts for a mystery story about a gem stolen from India! This project was both more work, and I think more rewarding, than the traditional research essay for all involved. It was only possible because of the tremendous support we had from Annie Murray, Kathryn Ranjit, and Catelynn Sahadath at the University of Calgary Library. Here are a few of my takeaways from the project: Continue reading “The Transatlantic Digital Moonstone”