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Future Directions for Robert Browning Studies: A Virtual Roundtable

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 431-449 | 10.1353/vp.2012.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the spring of 2011 Britta and Mary Ellis invited a number of scholars of Victorian poetry to engage in an email exchange directed to the future of Browning studies. Five scholars from three continents agreed to weigh in and over the summer of 2011 engaged in a lively discussion of various questions posed by way of provocation—rather than steady conviction—by the editors. Here is a lightly edited version of the colloquy, prefaced by our original letter to the participants.

March 24, 2011

Dear Isobel Armstrong, Sandra Donaldson, Warwick Slinn, Herbert Tucker, and John Woolford:

We are editing the special issue of Victorian Poetry commemorating the bicentenary of Robert Browning’s birth. We would be most grateful for your help. At the most recent North American Victorian Studies Association meeting (Fall, 2010) aside from Chip Tucker’s keynote address, only one paper on Robert Browning appeared on the program. Similarly, the British Association for Victorian Studies conferences over the past six years have never featured more than two papers on Robert Browning, and sometimes none at all. In light of this fact, we ask ourselves what might be the future of Robert Browning studies?

It might be fun, we thought, to create a roundtable exchange of brief reflections. To get the ball rolling, we’ve suggested a few questions, but you may have questions of your own instead, and there is no need for each person to address them all.

Here are our provocations. Feel free to suggest your own questions or to critique these.

  • 1.    Is there a future for Robert Browning studies at a time when cultural studies and a focus on material culture dominate Victorian studies?

  • 2.    Many articles published of late are formulated along the lines of “Robert Browning and . . .”; writers often engage in passing, en route to larger cultural or thematic ends. What happens to Browning studies if few critics have a deep/broad engagement with his work? From a slightly different angle, could we say there are Joyceans and Dickensians by the score, and there is a critical presumption that serious scholars are familiar with the whole oeuvre of these writers. Can that be said of Browning studies now? Will it be sayable in the future?

  • 3.    Related to the previous question: is a single author study on a poet publishable these days?

  • 4.    How is Browning teachable in the twenty-first century?

  • 5.    What’s the point of studying someone who, to quote Catherine Hall, was “white, male and middle-class” in a time when the canon has, at least in theory, radically expanded?

  • 6.    What opportunities do you envision for Robert Browning studies in the next 200 years?

  • We would be most grateful if you would be willing to participate in this exchange. We value your ideas, your suggestions, and your opinions.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

    All best wishes,

    Mary Ellis Gibson and Britta Martens

From: Warwick Slinn

Professor Emeritus and Honorary Research Fellow

Massey University, New Zealand

April 14, 2011

Dear fellow e-roundtablers,

Thanks to Britta and Mary Ellis for initiating this exchange. It looks as if I might as well open the batting.

Response to question 1

One of the sharper consequences for literary scholars in the context of cultural studies and a material focus is the disappearance of the single literary artifact as an object of study. Given that in rejecting the political assumptions of new criticism, we’ve agreed that poems are not objects that should be isolated from their historical connections, the need to restore works to their material contexts is understandable. At the same time I think there are a couple of particular challenges that affect Robert Browning studies. The first is to distinguish between, on the one hand, ideological underpinnings whereby literary works are only of value when they can be subsumed as propaganda in some sort of contemporary cultural war, and, on the other, efforts to explain the critical function of a work itself (its ability to critique its society). I propose a dose of Arnoldian disinterest in order to reject the first and pursue the second. The second challenge is concomitant but more demanding: analyzing literary function...

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