- ASECS at 50:Interview with Maximillian Novak
Reflecting on his early days of graduate school at UCLA in an article for the launch issue of Digital Defoe in 2009, Maximillian Novak observed that he was "far from your single minded, professionally oriented graduate student," unsure what field to specialize in and absorbed by a range of writers and critical questions.1 "My favorite author was Swift," he wrote, but it was the topic of "Defoe and economics" that ultimately grabbed Novak's attention. At the time "it seemed as if ideas were swirling around Defoe's work and reputation, as if studies in Defoe were becoming possible in a way they had not been before." Novak entered that conversation with a dissertation that became his first book, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (Univ. of California Press, 1962), in which he pushed back against the tendency to read Defoe as a champion of economic individualism, instead presenting Defoe's fiction through the lens of his mercantilist sensibilities and arguing for the moral and social complexity of Defoe's characters. Several monographs and a compendious biography (Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions, Oxford Univ. Press, 2001) followed, covering topics ranging from Defoe's engagement with natural law (Defoe and the Nature of Man, Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), to the intersections among Defoe's fiction, journalism, historical writing, and interest in painting (Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983). In the introduction to Transformations, Ideology, and the Real in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Other Narratives (Univ. of Delaware Press, 2015), Novak wrote that he first began publishing on Defoe with an aim "to establish Defoe as a significant thinker both outside and inside his fiction."2 Across a six-decade career, Novak has done that and more, not only rendering Defoe's protean oeuvre more approachable and meaningful for subsequent scholars, but also making significant [End Page 379] contributions to the study of the eighteenth-century novel by scrupulously situating it within the era's cultural, political, and economic networks. Nevertheless, Novak never left the broad curiosity of his early days in graduate school behind. Interspersed with his research on Defoe are several volumes of John Dryden's Works (Univ. of California Press, 1956–2000), a book on William Congreve (William Congreve, Twayne, 1971), an overview of eighteenth-century literature that examined the contradictions and conflicts within the period's literary ideals (Eighteenth-Century English Literature, Macmillan, 1983), a book on the twentieth-century Jewish American writer I.J. Singer written with Estelle Gershgoren Novak (The Writer as Exile: Israel Joshua Singer, AMS Press, 2016), and numerous essays on Dryden and Jonathan Swift, among other eighteenth-century literary luminaries. Novak received a Ph.D. from UCLA in 1958 and a D.Phil. from Oxford in 1961. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1958–1962. He then returned to UCLA where he remains, continuing to bring eighteenth-century literature to life for newcomers and old hands alike.
You've been a part of ASECS for much of its history, first appearing on an ASECS program as an organizer in 1971, when UCLA hosted the society's 3rd annual meeting, and serving on its executive board from 1978–1981. What are your most noteworthy recollections of ASECS? How has the organization influenced the study of the eighteenth century?
I recall the formation of ASECS at an MLA. The meetings of that organization were arranged around a few plenary sessions—none of the many seminars that exist now, and there were few such sessions allotted to the Restoration and eighteenth century. Donald Greene, who was one of the early organizers of ASECS, expressed his dissatisfaction to me and the need for an organization such as ASECS. There was so much important scholarship and criticism that needed to be discussed. The founding of ASECS helped to reveal the centrality of the period to the literature, arts, history, and philosophy of later periods. This may seem obvious now, but nineteenth-century writers had made a conscious effort to deny the importance of the previous century.