An Early Americanist in Austenland

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.28.06 AMOf course I cannot speak (or type) for everyone, but in the past six years, one specific word has never been far from the forefront of my mind: copyright. While I think that copyright is an incredibly fascinating and complex historical subject —and thus why wouldn’t everyone be talking about it all the time—it is probably because intellectual property was the subject of my dissertation that I spent so much time thinking, reading, and writing about it. I’m now in an exciting, strange, and surreal moment where I’ve defended my dissertation and am conceiving of what the manuscript will look like. And in this window two other words have come up: Austen and de Staël.

For the first time in my career as a historian, I am going to be giving a talk in which I do not say the word copyright—or any of the related phrases of literary property, maps, Federalists, steamboats, and pirates—once. Last summer, I came across this CFP. 2017 makes the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Austen, famed English novelist and commentator on the economic and social practices of the British regency period, and Germaine de Staël, the powerful public intellectual, author, and political figure of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The conference, #AustenStaël, is focused on the reputations, legacies, and future interpretations of both women.

During my masters and Ph.D. coursework I took two classes, each of which focused on Austen and de Staël respectively. I had a phenomenal experience in both of these classes, particularly in being given the opportunity to mine how each figure wrote about women in history, such as Lady Jane Grey, in their respective works. De Staël’s political career as well as her fascinating personality made her the perfect subject around which to study many aspects of the French revolution, and European nationalisms more broadly, and how each interacted with American counterparts. Austen’s political engagement and personal life were far subtler in nature, and yet struck a similar nerve in terms of saga and satire in historical narratives. Dissertation-duty called though, and so those term papers and interests remained firmly in 2013.

BUT. July’s conference is giving this Early Americanist the chance to cross the Atlantic, literally and historiographically, and workshop a paper very much in its juvenilia stage. However, as previously stated, I have never presented work that is not in some way related to my now-manuscript. So the past few weeks I’ve asked friends and colleagues for some advice on how best to approach this new experience, and hopefully their suggestions may resonate for other folks in a similar position.

The first and most concise perspective was to be very direct: establish that this is a new project distinct from your other work, and express an interest for feedback in that vein. Given that I am neither a gender historian, a literary scholar, or any kind of expert in eighteenth and early nineteenth century France, better to be as clear about that as possible and explain what I do know, and what I’d like to know more of. Second, do a “limited” crash course. You’re not, as one ‘friendleague’ pointed out, going to be able to read everything and anything on Austen and de Staël by July. You should read-up as thoroughly as you can by using the conference program as a good starting point to introduce yourself to scholarship you may not have been exposed to before. View this first presentation as a way to seek out scholarship you might not have known otherwise, and go from there.

Third, and most complexly: fandom. Like many, many people around the world, Austen was one of my first literary inspirations, and I’ve read every one of her novels so many times I’ve lost count. Pride and Prejudice was one of two books I first bought on my own, with my own money—along with E.L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (but that is better saved for next week’s #FoundingFiction round-table)—and I strongly think that Persuasion is one of the most scathing pieces of economic commentary in the nineteenth century. I am in other words, an avid reader and enthusiast of Austen. I am also aware, to put it bluntly, of the pitfalls and potential unprofessionalism of that interest.

Based on my queries, it seems that the best way to avoid this particular problem is to be cognizant of it. Most sets of scholarship I’d image have their equivalents – in Early America, the reference is founder’s chic – and I think those can best broached by open conversations about the impulse and then using those as a starting point to plumb deeper. And oddly enough, it was this impulse that more or less got me to the central question of my conference paper. Being so invested in Austen’s books myself resulted in the very unwieldy question of why, a question in part inspired by Rachel Brownstein’s work, and then moved back about two hundred years. Why do two young women in completely different geographic, economic, religious, and cultural climates focus on a particular young, mistreated, and brilliant Queen of England? Are they fans? Are they satirists? Are they historians or novelists? Or are they some porous combination of all of the above?

2 comments on “An Early Americanist in Austenland

  1. rcolton3 says:

    Having worked for the US Copyright Office for 37 years, I have to say researching and writing a dissertation on copyright must have been excruciatingly painful.

  2. The interaction between copyright and creation fascinates me. Bravo!

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