Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies
Temporal Forms in the Nineteenth-Century British Mediterranean
Friday, February 24, 2017
to 12:00 PM
255 Herring Hall
“Almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean,” asserts James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Nineteenth-century Britain mapped its narratives of racial and cultural superiority onto these tangible “shores” as British naval dominion from Gibraltar to the Levant opened the circum-Mediterranean region to eager British travelers. This was a geographic contact zone between empires, where the Great Powers jostled for control. But the Mediterranean was also a temporal contact zone for Western imperialists who could not, as they did elsewhere, sweep away existing cultures and histories. Mediterranean heritage, as Boswell had insisted, served as the foundation of Britain’s sense of superiority and the impetus driving countless British tourists to contribute to a booming travel writing market in England. However, travelers who sought the past on these famous shores discovered landscapes teeming with present foreign life. My dissertation, "Temporal Forms in the Nineteenth-Century British Mediterranean," focuses on the conflicts of time that travel brings to the fore of narrative. Firsthand experience in legendary places, I argue, caused travelers to rethink the past. Recent work on transnationalism has yet to account for the fundamental temporal relationship between Britain and the Mediterranean that captivated travelers. Temporal Forms aims to fill this gap, exploring the links among history, narrative, and imperial time that manifest when travelers confront the extant landscapes of their heritage.
In "Temporal Forms," I draw on scholarship from three distinct methodologies: historicist work (including empire and travel studies); text-centered work from literary formalism; and scholarship about time from philosophy and the history of science. The resulting methodology I develop is a politically aware formalism that takes time as its object. Each chapter focuses on a different temporal model: inheritance, embeddedness, presentism, and network. Time, I show, functions across narrative sequence and lived experience, organizing both how bodies move through space and how texts codify that movement. For example, in chapter two, “From Vistas to Fractals: Scales of Time and History,” I analyze how antiquarian research at Pompeii produced a site where Britons could imagine a direct connection to what they perceived as their imperial ancestor, Rome. The extraordinary preservation of quotidian Pompeiian life—instead of the great hero tales so familiar through classical education—challenged visitors like Charles Dickens to rethink the scale of historical narrative. When his Pictures from Italy depicts “a history in every stone that strews the ground,” then, I contend that it is reshaping history from a sequence of events to a fractal structure that embeds potentially infinite self-similar moments.
Dickens reconfigures models of history that imagine a cultural lineage, as I examine in chapter one, “Inheriting Antiquity.” I argue that, for both Lord Byron and Felicia Hemans, Waterloo becomes a geopolitical lynch-pin connecting Britain to the Mediterranean for antiquaries, politicians, and tourists. As I discuss in chapter three, “Profaning Time and Space in Genre and Geography,” reverential tourism of the early nineteenth century clashed with the demands of mid-Victorian modernization. I show how William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope use character perspective to determine what in the eastern Mediterranean is worth preserving. My final chapter, “Living the Past in the Transnational Network,” analyzes how authors such as Vernon Lee and John Ruskin excavate a transnational history in Florence that forges connections across political boundaries. Heritage proves powerful, with the potential to reinforce imperialism and to incite revolution. It both acts upon and is made by the present. Each model I discuss in Temporal Forms attempts to theorize the convergence of past and present that is heightened in the nineteenth-century Mediterranean.