- ASECS at 50:Interview with John Richetti
John Richetti is A.M. Rosenthal Professor (Emeritus) of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1968. Before arriving at Penn, he taught at Columbia, Rutgers, and Stanford. In addition to serving as the President of the Defoe Society, Richetti has also chaired the Gottschalk Prize Committee, has been an advisory board member for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and was president of ASECS from 2008–2009.
Richetti's work has ranged widely in the field—though the novel always has been a central concern. His first book, Popular Fiction before Richardson (1969) fundamentally challenged prevailing accounts of the rise of the novel. Subsequent works focused on the fictions of Daniel Defoe (Defoe's Narratives, 1975) and the narrative strategies of eighteenth-century philosophy (Philosophical Writing: Locke, Berkeley, Hume, 1983). Additionally, Richetti has produced editions of Eliza Haywood's work and (with Toni Bowers) Richardson's Clarissa. He also has curated (with Paula Backscheider) an important anthology on eighteenth-century women's writing. He has recorded readings of a series of poems for PennSound. At the heart of Richetti's work is an abiding interest in literary form in all its manifestations, from the "popular fiction" preceding Richardson's novels to the narrative persona of empiricist philosophers to the sound of eighteenth-century verse.
What are some of your earliest memories of ASECS? How have you seen the organization change over the years? [End Page 359]
My mentor at Columbia, James L. Clifford, was one of the founders of ASECS when I was a graduate student. I have certainly enjoyed and profited intellectually from all the meetings I went to over the years, and I would contend that of all the period groups in English Studies it is still the strongest and the most vibrant. I think, too, that the membership of ASECS is now much more varied than when it was founded, with many more women of course but also more minority group members. My only regret in recent years is the shift almost exclusively as far as I can tell to "cultural studies" whereby what I think of as "literary studies" is relatively neglected and even disparaged. This can be seen in the lack (never more than one or two, I think) of panels at eighteenth-century conferences that deal with verse.
How much of this shift from "literary studies" to "cultural studies," though, is due to the nature of the institution itself? Currently, ASECS isn't only composed of literature scholars. We also have historians, art historians, musicologists, etc.—not to mention scholars working across those disciplines and in even more interdisciplinary fields still. While many are certainly interested in the literary or formal qualities of eighteenth-century texts, I also can understand why, say, an art historian would think about the period in different ways and with different methodologies. While "cultural studies" (broadly construed) has many aims, doesn't it manage to bring together the necessarily diverse interests served by ASECS?
Well, yes. ASECS is a multidisciplinary group and cultural studies, strictly speaking, comes naturally to historians, although art historians are like literature professors, interested of course in formal issues to some extent (some artists are better than others). But the training of literary scholars, at least in my generation (which is to be sure a dying cohort at this point) centered on literary history, and on the close reading of texts in their formal dimensions, at least to some degree (some writers are better than others—Pope is better than Stephen Duck, for a facile example).
I remember some years ago attending at the University of Michigan an "interdisciplinary" conference, organized I think by the estimable David Porter and my good friend, Lincoln Faller, that featured historians and English literature scholars. Although we all got along and there was a good deal of fellowship between the two disciplines, what emerged for me was the vast divide between our approaches and the uses to which we put the same information. We were talking with different vocabularies and from distinct perspectives about...