Calendar of Events

Fall 2013

Friday, September 27, 2013
Cannon Schmitt (English, University of Toronto)
Technical Maturity in Robert Louis Stevenson
3:30 pm Curtin 118

In The Way of the World, his classic account of the European bildungsroman, Franco Moretti writes: “To reach the conclusive synthesis of maturity . . . it is not enough to achieve ‘objective’ results, whatever they may be—learning a trade, establishing a family.” In novels such as Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, to negotiate the transition to adulthood involves the much more nebulous accomplishment of accepting a mismatch between individual desire and social possibility. It would be absurd to imagine Jane’s maturity marked by, say, fluency in Hindustani, or Pip’s by mastery of marginal utility theory.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s corpus, however, things are different. In novels such as Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), and The Ebb-Tide (1894), he fashions protagonists who achieve what may be called a technical maturity. First, precisely the learning and deployment of technical knowledge sedimented in a specialist lexicon signals accession to this maturity. But, secondly, it is also “technical” in the sense that it is not fully realized. Rooted in Stevenson’s own vocational ambivalence, born of having rejected the family business of marine engineering for fiction writing, the complex attitude to the technical as at once crucial and insufficient provides critical purchase on the problem of what a novel ought to be or, more to the point, do.

Literary history has traditionally valorized figurative, non-literal, and un- or anti-technical texts—as well as the figurative, non-literal, and anti-technical elements of texts that themselves might be seen otherwise. And literary study as such has generally insisted that something other, in fact something more, than technical knowledge is at stake. To grasp Stevenson’s technical maturity, however, is to bring into focus another history of the novel and an alternative vocation for literary study. It is also to confront the possibility of a change in our own relation to the technical made necessary by such contemporary realities as fracking, shale oil extraction, and climate change.

Background reading: Cannon Schmitt, "Tidal Conrad (Literally)," Victorian Studies 55, no. 1 (Autumn 2012): 7-29.

"Progress of the Bell Rock Works," engraving by William Miller
"Progress of the Bell Rock Works," engraving by William Miller, Figure ix, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse by Robert Stevenson (Edinburgh and London, 1824)

Cannon Schmitt is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. His primary teaching and research field is Victorian literature and culture, with a particular focus on cultural studies of science, especially evolutionary theory; the novel and narrative theory; the novel and the sea; and maritime history and culture. His books include Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (2009) and Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality (1997). His current book project is tentatively titled "Victorian Oceans," in which he hypothesizes that the ocean and its associated phenomena—tides, prevailing winds, marine engineering, ships under sail—constitute a privileged locus of the real or the literal in Victorian fiction.

Brown bag lunch discussion
September 27
12 noon Curtin 939
Background reading: Cannon Schmitt, "Tidal Conrad (Literally)," Victorian Studies 55, no. 1 (Autumn 2012): 7-29.

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