Our seminar at a glance
The seminar begins with questions about Dickens and the classroom. We will explore how and why we teach Dickens today. We will also share our experiences teaching Dickens, with an emphasis on the challenges that his work poses for our students. What will emerge from this conversation is a set of group objectives for the seminar, a list of pedagogical interests and goals that will inform and shape our discussions over the next four weeks. In addition to outlining the topical terrain of the seminar on Day One, we will look at readings that position Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities within Dickens’s larger body of work and Dickens within a larger historical and critical context.
Our discussion will carry forward over the next two meetings, as we consider Hard Times in relation to industrialization and mid-nineteenth-century reform efforts as well as in relation to Dickens’s politics and narrative style. Woven through these discussions will be an emphasis on the novel’s representation of industrial labor, education, and collective social action. We will explore these issues with the help of carefully selected scholarship that models a range of critical approaches.
As we move from the first week and into the second, we will take up a variety of cultural studies approaches to the novel. We will visit the library to see some of the textual and visual materials the NEH Summer Scholars will have access to during their stay at UC Santa Cruz, including some of the rarer nineteenth-century items in Special Collections.
We will also explore the nineteenth-century periodical archive. As Hard Times was serialized within the pages of Household Words, a journal Dickens edited, resituating the novel within the context of Victorian magazines and newspapers recaptures the text’s original form. We will learn how to access and use the Victorian periodicals archive to recover the novel’s original historical context and to help our students connect with that rich social history. NEH Summer Scholars will work with these materials firsthand as they complete an inquiry-based, archival assignment that will have them searching through Victorian newspapers and magazines for material that responds to our conversations about the novel. They will scour the period’s magazines to uncover essays, advertisements, and images that may answer (or alter) the group’s initial research questions. As we discuss these discoveries in seminar the following week, NEH Summer Scholars will be able to connect their own individual research with the research discoveries of their peers, piecing together a comprehensive picture of the novel and its cultural and historical moment. They will also gain a hands-on experience of working with archival materials in an assignment they could potentially adapt for their own students.
In the second week, we look at some of Dickens’s source materials, the original critical reception of Hard Times, as well as its later critical legacy. We will put the text into conversation with such nineteenth-century thinkers as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and John Stuart Mill as we consider the social and political theories that underlie and animate the novel (and that continue to inform social and economic debates). We will also discuss the novel alongside other mid-century fiction, poems, and essays that grappled with industrialization, collective action, and the condition of the English working class.
We will conclude our study of Hard Times with a look at adaptations of the novel. Among the least-adapted of all Dickens’s novels, Hard Times invites questions about the dynamics of adaptation, the melodramatic elements of the text, and the general translatability of the novel into other media. These adaptations will also help us reconnect with our earlier discussions of the book’s reception and critical history as well as to our discussions of the novel and its potential relevance to new readerships. This will also be an opportunity to talk about modern adaptation theory and the ways in which adaptations can be used to enrich student engagement with literary texts, an issue we will return to in the final week of the seminar. NEH Summer Scholars will encounter one of the first dramatizations of the novel alongside one of the first cinematic adaptations and a recent (1996) one-person play. This juxtaposition of forms and periods will highlight the dynamics of the adaptive process while also pointing the way to possibilities for engaging students in adaptive activities, responding to Tom Leitch’s call for a more active form of literacy in today’s classroom.
Extending this discussion of adaptation and influence, we transition, at the end of the second week, to a discussion of A Tale of Two Cities. Tracing the novel’s genealogy, we begin with two plays that inspired Dickens’s Tale. The Dead Heart and The Frozen Deep (the latter co-written by Dickens) provided the materials from which Tale’s self-sacrificial Charles Darnay was fashioned, and together the plays offer an introduction to the novel’s central themes as well as its immediate cultural engagement. This discussion looks ahead to the end of the unit (and the seminar) with its consideration of latter-day adaptations of the novel. In this way, our study of A Tale of Two Cities is bookended by issues of influence and inspiration.
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In the third week, we explore the historical and political issues that erupt violently across A Tale of Two Cities, as we consider how the novel (1) looks back towards the French Revolution, (2) points towards the revolutions of the 1850s, and (3) anticipates our contemporary questions about political violence and terrorism. We consider not only Dickens’s deployment of history as a way of making sense of and commenting upon contemporary events (such as the Indian “Mutiny” of 1857), but also the relevance of nineteenth-century fiction to our own cultural moment.
The secondary readings variously position Tale as history, as ethical exploration, and as political statement. Taken together, they reveal multiple opportunities for studying literary texts across a wide range of disciplines as they remind us of the real-world relevance of literature.
We will also consider the shifting critical reception of the novel and its author, as we discuss Dickens’s place within the canon and today’s school curricula.
With visits from two distinguished speakers, the fourth week brings closure to the seminar with a focus on the visual. We return to the subject of adaptation as we look at Tale’s translation to both stage and screen, tracing a history of its multimedia afterlife from nineteenth-century melodrama to modern Broadway musicals. This latter is the special expertise of Sharon Weltman, who will visit near the end of the week to sketch for us Dickens’s fortunes on the twentieth-century stage as we consider the translatability of Dickens’s melodramatic fiction to modern forms of performance, a discussion that will compel a return to a consideration of Dickens’s literary style and its modern legibility.
We will also be joined by Kate Flint, who will show us how to “read” (closely and critically) visual images as she discusses Victorian art and illustration. Her talk will focus on ways to use the visual to teach the literary, in particular the use of “found” images—historical and contemporary—to promote and assess student engagement with literary texts. During this final week, NEH Summer Scholars will deliver brief, informal presentations about their projects in order to gather ideas that they can incorporate as they finalize their projects (due in September).