History, Culture, and Literature

After my sophomore year at Wellesley College, when I could not make up my mind whether to major in history or in English, I transferred to Radcliffe College [aka Harvard] which offered a concentration in History and Literature. There I defined my concentration as Modern French and British History and Literature, and that is how my degree is registered on my undergraduate diploma. I have been working in this field ever since.

And ever since I have been trying to understand the relationship between history and literature. Over time I have come to realize that I am a historian who uses literature as sources of evidence and insight, rather than a literary historian or critic who turns to general history for context. Defining my work in this way has helped me explain myself to myself and to the larger world.

(I also sometimes call myself a cultural historian of technology, but the word “cultural” has so many meanings that it can be easily misunderstood. Also, the term “historian of technology” is easily misinterpreted, and I am increasingly less inclined to bracket it off as a specialty subsection of history.)

The essays in this subsection attempt to explore these issues, which are partly personal (how do I define myself?) but more importantly methodological and theoretical. The relationship between history and literature is examined more broadly and deeply in The Triumph of Human Empire, through the case studies of three writers of unusual insight and talent. It is just a start, though. There is much more thinking and writing about this relationship that I plan to do.

Verne and Baudelaire in the Capital of the Nineteenth Century

January 2, 2009

Two Writers and a City

In November 1848 Jules Verne set out for Paris from his home city of Nantes, telling his family he would continue his law studies but in his own mind intending to make his mark in literature. The times were unsettled. In France the Second Republic had just been proclaimed, while other governments across the Continent were trembling and falling. Verne was eager to get to Paris in time to see the Second Republic inaugurated in a solemn ceremony on the Place de la Concorde. Along with a friend of his age, he took a stagecoach to Tours–the railroad did not yet extend all the way to Nantes—intending to take the train the rest of the way. At Tours, however, they discovered that all the railway cars were reserved to transport National Guardsmen to the capital. Verne and his friend tried to sneak on board but were detected by a gendarme who noticed they had no uniforms, swords, or papers. They had to continue by stagecoach. By the time they arrived in Paris and made their way to the Place de la Concorde, the ceremony was over and the crowd had dispersed, leaving only litter and tattered decorations.(Allott 1940: 13-14; Allotte de la Fuÿe 1956: 35-36; Butcher 2006: 71-72).

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