English 5355A.03

"Eighteenth-Century Popular Literature (Culture) and History: An Interdisciplinary Approach"

Fall 1997
Monday (7:30-9:30), 1456 Henry #110
Instructor: David McNeil

Description This class will engage in the interdisciplinary study of the popular literature surrounding three historical episodes in the eighteenth century: 1) the South Sea Bubble (1720), or first great stock- market crash; 2) the Melksham Riots and Aftermath (1739), a weaver riot in rural Wiltshire; and 3) the British victory at Québec, which set churchbells ringing throughout England. First, a survey of the relevant theory on interdisciplinarity, e.g., ECS 28 (1994) Special Issue, and popular literature (e.g., Williams, etc.) will be made. The class will then devote three weeks to each episode, at least one of which will concern the literature that comprises the generally accepted "historical background."

In the first section, the visual/print/aural aspects of broadsheets and ballads concerning the Bubble will be discussed (including Swift's famous poem). English imitations of Dutch and French original material will also be considered, as well as the economic and cultural theories on boom/crash speculation. We will note various visual motifs and icons (e.g., the carriage, wind) and the commentary on crowd behavior ("deindividuation" according to twentieth-century social psychology).

The second section will concentrate on the local press (i.e., the Gloucester Journal and Salisbury Journal) coverage of the Melksham Riots, the debate to which they gave rise, and the subsequent trials. Topics that we will focus on will be media theories (e.g., the "gatekeeper" press), weaver unrest, the popular content of period newspapers (e.g., foreign news, advertisements), and court and legal history (the latter especially as it concerns crowd control and alcohol licensing).

A number of popular poems on the subject of Wolfe's victory at Quèbec will form the basis of the final episode. As part of understanding the public spectacle of the war-victory celebration, we will read a number of the entries in a literary contest (read popular agon) sponsored by Cambridge University on the subject of the battle on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe's often quoted statement, apparently made the night before the decisive battle, that he would rather have been the author of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (one of the most canonized poems of the period) than the conqueror of Quèbec will be the starting point for a discussion of how interwoven popular literature and history are.

The object of the class is not just to expose students to the rewards of an interdisciplinary approach, but to argue for its necessity in understanding literature's cultural significance. The class materials will consist largely of electronic texts, microfilm (some on inter-library loan), and rare books (e.g., Gentleman's Magazine). Students will be required to do two oral presentations and a term essay.

Tentative Schedule (Fall 1997)
Updated: September 8, 1997