Doubly Relevant

April 04, 2022

By Trude Hoffacker 



As Friends of the Dickens Project, all of us support the Dickens Universe financially and with our labor. We also support the Project's outreach programs to high school and graduate students. The Winter Graduate Conference is one such outreach program. But exactly what is the Winter Conference? This year I was graciously invited to attend the Conference as an observer to find the answer. Because the conference was virtual this year, I was not able to talk to most of the grad students informally, but I was able to listen to 13 graduate students from 11 different universities, mentored by 17 faculty members, present papers. I took just over 13 pages of notes! Here is my report, distilled from those notes.


Did you know that “natural” or “green” burial, the current trend that aims to bury the dead “with minimal environmental impact,” is not a recent, progressive development? No, it’s a throwback to pre-Victorian times, as I learned from Sarah Margaret Pittman of the University of Mississippi. Disturbed by the thought of decomposing bodies underground, the Victorians turned to using coffins. However, as Sarah pointed out, “Coffins prevent the body from contributing to the ecological cycle.”

Sarah’s talk was just one of several that answered a question raised by Robert Patten (Rice University): how will you make your research relevant to the present?” Sarah was one of three students whose papers fell under the category of “Ecologies.” Jiwon Min, from Louisiana State University, in her discussion of the monstrous Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop, pointed out that Dickens was “fascinated by environmental degradation and climate change,” thus confirming what many of us felt during our discussions of A Christmas Carol last summer: Dickens’s concerns align with many of our contemporary concerns. UC Santa Cruz’s Rafael Franco addressed a concern more in line with Scrooge’s miserliness than with environmental issues: “Growth or Happiness? New Perspectives of 19th Century Industry and Morality.” Rafael’s discussion of the struggle to secure humane conditions for workers in Victorian times immediately brought to mind the resistance to unionization by several of today’s companies as well as our burgeoning wealth gap. Jennifer Rabedeau’s (Cornell University) talk on “Ornament and the Fiction of National Historiography” sent me off to thinking about our tearing down statues  and renaming schools, and streets, and ball teams in an attempt to right the wrongs of racism or, at least, not to honor racists. How do our buildings and our “ornaments” reflect our culture at any given moment? 

The conference took place at the end of Black History Month, and, as I am writing, Women’s History Month has just begun. Both Black people, other marginalized groups, and women were featured in graduate student papers. Emma Hetrick from the University of Texas at Austin presented a nuanced view of “Casting 19th-Century Black Britons,” in which she referred to modern-day productions which cast people of color in roles traditionally played by white actors. Laraib Kahn of Ryerson University discussed the importance of African-American scrapbooking in the 19th century as a way of “gathering information [that produced] a vision of truth controlled by the African-American.” Inspired by the role that African-American scrapbooks played in truth telling, Laraib has created her own scrapbook to give “A Glimpse of the Lost Islamic History” in the 19th century. Women received a lot of attention: Jennifer Heine of the University of Southern California discussed “The Feminine Speaking Body in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House”; Kelsey Ball of Vanderbilt focused on “Spinsters, Speech, and Pity in Emma and Middlemarch”; Emi Gonzalez from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, gave me an entirely new view of Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles as a modern woman of strength rather than as a hapless victim. 

In more directly answering Professor Robert Patten’s question about making 19th-century literature and research relevant to our own times, several students focused on the matter of audience, rather than of subject matter. Emma Hetrick spoke of forming partnerships with the general public as well as the academic community. Lindsay McClure (Southern Methodist University), whose talk on “Amos Barton” from Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life discussed Amos’s repression of the very humanitarian ideals he espoused, talked of the need for community. It is a community that, as John Jordan pointed out, may not be the academic community. Sara Loy (Indiana University), indirectly acknowledged this fact by commenting that the student researchers and scholars might consider “public writing”; that is, writing published in periodicals other than academic journals. The importance of “voice” in relation to audience was a theme in Spencer Armada’s (UC Santa Cruz) paper on Charles Broderick Brown’s Wieland.

Of special interest on Saturday morning before lunch was a Writing Workshop offered by Professor Rachel Teukolsky of Vanderbilt, which offered practical tips for graduate students on writing for publication.

Given space constraints, I have not been able to touch in detail on every single graduate student paper. I have, thus far, also explored only the issue of relevance to present-day concerns within the work of the 13 grad students at the conference. So, how was the conference “Doubly Relevant”?

Only three of the thirteen papers focused directly on works by Charles Dickens — and this at a conference sponsored by the Dickens Project! The question is, then, how is a conference like this one relevant to Dickens? Taking a final look over my pages of notes, I see that it was during Jiwon’s talk that I scribbled in the margin, “To know me, you must know my neighborhood.” That marginal note became a statement that summed up the significance of the conference for me and my Universe friends as Dickens fans: “To know Dickens, you must know his neighborhood.” I came away from the Winter Graduate Student Conference feeling I knew not simply the streets of London that Dickens walked, but more importantly the thoughts and feelings that circulated in the broad world in which he lived. 

Victorian literature is relevant to the issues of the 21st century; Victorian literature is relevant to an understanding of its preeminent popular spokesperson — Charles Dickens.