Interview with Professor Ruth Mack

Ruth Mack.

Associate Chair of English, Stacy Hubbard, sat down with Associate Professor Ruth Mack to find out more about her teaching interests and her current research.

SH: How did you first get interested in eighteenth-century literature?

RM: To be honest, I read very little eighteenth-century literature as an undergraduate [at Yale]—and then only poetry, and only major poetry. I went to graduate school [at Johns Hopkins] certain that I wanted to study the British Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, and so on), perhaps in the context of late-eighteenth century poetry. Then, I took a course on the eighteenth-century novel, and that was the end of that. I was completely fascinated by the strangeness of the early novel, a genre whose writers are making up the rules as they go along. It’s not that the early novels are awkward—though if one is used to reading later novels, it’s easy to feel that they are—but they are formally rather raw or exposed. And the registers in which they ask questions are thus unpredictable, unexpected.  I’ve meant to return to scholarship on poetry, but I’m still as captivated by those strange prose texts as I was the first time (or, really, second or third time) I read Robinson Crusoe in Baltimore. It turns out that it may take a while for this to fade.

SH: What are your favorite materials to teach? In the world of the 140-character Tweet, how do you draw people back into the thick tomes of Richardson, Sterne or Radcliffe?

RM: My favorite things to teach are probably the “thick tomes” you refer to, because they are so alien and getting more so by the second. In the age of Twitter and Facebook what does it mean to read a novel of letters that runs around 1500 pages? What can it show us that our own ways of thinking about the world can’t? Some students hate reading Clarissa, of course, and others love it, are captivated by it, absorbed in it. I like showing students books the likes of which they’ve never seen before (even, perhaps, as senior English majors). And I like talking about both of those reactions: why it can work in the present, or why it won’t.  I think that one of the great payoffs of reading older literature is that in figuring out the rules of texts that seem alien to us, we can see our own practices, our own ways of thinking, more clearly. And, perhaps a bit perversely, I like teaching texts to undergraduates that people frequently assume undergraduates can’t handle. My undergraduates convinced me a long time ago that such assumptions are ridiculous.

SH: Tell us about your book, Literary Historicity: Literature and Historical Experience in Eighteenth Century Britain. What motivated that project?

RM: The project came out of my reading of eighteenth-century novels and my curiosity about what history was doing in them. These were novels with history in them but novels that did not read as “historical novels” (in the model that Walter Scott would perfect in the nineteenth century and that is still with us today in modern forms). Historical events might be present, for instance, but not fully integrated into the novel’s main plot. Or, in the book’s most outrageous case study, Horace Walpole’s short novel, The Castle of Otranto, the past might fall from the sky (and kill the prince) and be strangely indecipherable to its witnesses. The large argument of the book is that cases like this, which appear to trivialize the past, actually make very substantial claims, philosophical claims, even, about how we are to understand the relationship between past and present. The “historical experience” of the title has behind it questions like this: what does it mean to experience history? How is it different from an experience of the present moment? Later history writing obscured these questions but didn’t really answer them.

SH: This past year you held a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. What were you working on there?

RM: I had an amazing year at Radcliffe working on my current book, Habitual Knowledge: Theory and the Everyday in Eighteenth-Century Britain, which explores how writers thought about and theorized society before the dawn of anthropology as a discipline in the nineteenth century. I expected a nice office, wonderful library resources (the Institute is part of Harvard), and lots of time to research. I did get those things—and sustained, uninterrupted time is invaluable when one is working on a project over a number of years—but most remarkable, and most important for the way my project developed over the year, were the interlocutors I found there. Radcliffe invites 50 scholars each year in all disciplines: there were four others working in literary studies (of all kinds) and many more colleagues working in fields as diverse as astrophysics, psychiatry, sociology and art history. Conversations with my colleague who is a historian of science (focusing on contemporary biology) helped me to see how much my own book project will be stronger for delving into early modern scientific theory. Another colleague, an anthropologist, helped me to develop a reading list in parts of anthropological theory I didn’t know. My colleagues in art history were amazing readers of a chapter I was working on last fall on the history of design. Imagine having all of your ideal readers from different disciplines—and their offices are just down the hall.

SH: Where do you see your work going in the next 5-10 years?

RM: I’ll finish this book, certainly, and I am not sure what will follow it. The current project is vast in its scope, and as I work on each chapter, I can imagine it opening into a book-length project. It may be that I ultimately allow one of them to open in that way.

SH: You are about to take over as Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department. What are your thoughts about the job?

RM: Our graduate students are really talented thinkers and writers. They ultimately produce some of the most innovative work out there, and it is going to be a privilege to work with students during their time here and to see their projects develop. I will be on hand to help in any way I can.

 SH: Thanks for letting us get to know you a little better.