Disciplinary Dialogue
Helena Michie, J. David Hoeveler, and Jason Puskar
"The Tenses of Historicism"
October 26, 2007

On Friday, October 26, the Center hosted its second Disciplinary Dialogue of the 2007-08 academic year, featuring Helena Michie (English, Rice University) and as commentators J. David Hoeveler (History, UWM), and Jason Puskar (English, UWM). We also welcomed a diverse audience of faculty and graduate students from a number of departments.

In a paper entitled “In the Meantime: The Tenses of Historicism,” Michie explored “the imaginary but institutionally powerful line that divides ‘literature’ from ‘history.’” Her emphasis was on “flashpoints” between these academic disciplines, such as “the nature and sufficiency of evidence, the role of language and metaphor, the power of narrative, the relation between truth and fiction, the validity of casual explanations, and the possibilities and limitations of the archive.”

Professing herself especially interested in “how relations to and expectations about history get registered in the shape and structure of sentences,” she proceeded to examine ten historicizing sentences, both from works of Victorian literature—such as Dickens’s Bleak House, Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch—and by contemporary Victorianists, for example Jonathan Grossman, all expressing, in different ways, simultaneity.

Historicist sentences in realist novels, Michie argued, do important work, as they remind the reader that the novel is not just involved with individual lives, but also a wider social context. Michie referred to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, arguing that “it is the existence and the grammatical intelligibility of these sentences that offer up community in its most condensed form,” reminding the reader that “there are worlds beyond the one with which s/he is temporarily engaged.” The same goes, Michie concluded, for historicist scholars, who thanks to the emergence of forms of history such as social and intellectual history “rely for their ethics and their epistemologies on something like the notion of simultaneity endorsed by the historical novel….”

In his comments, Hoeveler hailed Professor Michie’s paper as a fresh and fruitful exploration of the nexus between literature and history, arguing that while many historians continue to be skeptical of the “linguistic turn” in their field, connecting language to social structure is nonetheless promising. Hoeveler noted that some of Michie’s selected sentences would not be considered historical by most historians, but he added that literary historicism remains crucial for insight in historical situations and a fertile tool for expanding the area where literature and history overlap.

The second commentator, Jason Puskar, focused on the stakes for language in Michie’s presentation, noting both the awkwardness and the inevitability of historicist sentences such as those selected by Michie. He argued that Michie’s analysis helps us see hierarchy and difference, but wondered if there can be an alternative in language to subordination (and simultaneity) and if, as a result, language does not also serve to preserve difference. Is the historicist sentence the product of a particular social, economic, and political milieu (Victorian/ism) or is it a product of language because language has no other way to deal with simultaneity than through subordination (and the preservation of difference)?

During an animated discussion, Michie addressed Puskar’s question by arguing that the kinds of historicizing sentences she examines may not be tied exclusively to Victorian/ist writing, but more broadly can be found in what she called social problem novels such as War and Peace and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Other issues discussed after the formal presentations included the unease professional historians can feel when novelists “historicize” or claim to be doing so, and the extent to which professional historians can gain insight into the past through literary work of the kind presented by Professor Michie.


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Center for 21st Century Studies

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Center for 21st Century Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201 USA
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