Postsecular Studies and the Rise of the English Novel, 1719-1897 (July 11-August 5 2016)

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National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar

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 explore this question in new ways: in Misty Anderson's words, reading religion into rather than out of history, and as Danièle Hervieu-Léger puts it, attending to signs of religion's profound and often surprising transformations in modernity.

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).

This four-week NEH seminar, to be held in Iowa City (11 July to 5 August 2016), will be directed by Lori Branch (Iowa) and Mark Knight (Toronto; Lancaster from 2016). Guest speakers will include Misty Anderson (Tennessee), Colin Jager (Rutgers), Deidre Lynch (Harvard), and Regina Schwartz (Northwestern). Scholars working on eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novels and any aspect of their relationship to religion and/or secularism are invited to apply. Participants will read the six novels in advance of the seminar, enabling them to focus on the secondary readings and their individual research projects during the four weeks of the seminar. Individual research projects might include (but are not limited to): a book chapter or journal article, a conference paper, part of a book project (e.g. a proposal or introduction), a course syllabus, or the development of a scholarly website. Participants will benefit from the chance to present their scholarly work to the group and to meet individually with the directors as well as guest speakers regarding their research projects.