NEH Summer Seminar: “Postsecular Studies and the Rise of the English Novel, 1719-1897”

Deadline: March 1, 2016

Dates: July 11-August 5, 2016

Location: University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA)

Program Link

What role do religion and secularization play in the rise of the novel? This seminar takes up the insights of postsecular studies to help scholars chart new accounts of the rise of the English novel and enrich their individual research in religion, secularism, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels.

The renewed focus on religion which scholars have termed the ‘religious turn’ began in the 1990s and has come of age in recent years. It has brought with the recognition that division between the religious and the secular is permeable and continually (re)constructed in modernity. Yet our histories of the English novel have hardly begun to internalize these changes. Kevin Seidel’s “Beyond the Religious and the Secular in the History of the Novel” makes a compelling call for new accounts of the novel’s rise that avoid repeating the religious/secular dialectic of the secularization thesis. Rather than stories that assume secularization’s inevitability and novelistic realism as its handmaiden, what is needed are accounts of the novel that no longer take secularization for granted but look in its pages for signs of the transformations of religion in modernity: that tell new stories about the ways modern selves narrate belief.

This seminar thus aims to chart new accounts of the rise of the English novel, drawing existing scholarship into dialogue with postsecular studies. The seminar will both operate at a meta-level—debating the theoretical questions at stake, prompting a new hermeneutic for reading religion, and thinking critically about the relationship between religion and the secular—and work out ideas of the postsecular from the ground up, through close reading. During the seminar we will focus on six novels that span the first two centuries of the novel’s rise: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Richard Graves’s The Spiritual Quixote (1772), Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-7), George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Our explorations of these texts will be shaped by literary criticism on the rise of the novel (e.g. Ian Watt, Margaret Anne Doody, Michael McKeon, Vivasvan Soni, and Sharon Kim) and a broad array of theorists and theologians who prompt new accounts of the relationship between religion and the secular (e.g. Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, Jacques Derrida, Graham Ward, and Christian Smith).

The seminar is co-directed by Lori Branch (University of Iowa), specialist in eighteenth-century British literature and editor of the “Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies” series for Ohio State University Press, and Mark Knight (University of Toronto/Lancaster U), specialist in nineteenth-century British literature and co-editor of the Bloomsbury series “New Directions in Religion and Literature.”



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