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From:
Patrick McCarthy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Date:
Wed, 2 Mar 1994 19:28:27 -0800
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Fellow readers of Dickens,

    What subjects and what theorists attract the attention of
advanced graduate students working mostly in the field of Vic-
torian studies?  Some ten days ago, as a full-time observer and
part-time participant, I tried to keep alert to such questions at
the Dickens Project Winter Conference.

    The weekend conference is an annual affair held at UC River-
side and invites papers from graduate students who have taken
part in the Dickens Universe summer meetings at UC Santa Cruz.
This year twenty-three papers were read in six sessions, four of
the authors coming from as far as New York and Texas.  Graduate
faculty from UC Riverside and Santa Barbara, the Universities of
Southern California and Stanford responded at each session, and
lively discussions followed.  Friends, faculty mentors, former
participants and interested parties from the summer conference
showed up as usual, and even as matters wound down on Sunday
afternoon some sixty people were still engaging themselves in the
goings-on.

    That is what impressed me to begin with, the level of inter-
est and commitment, but along with it, the generous outpouring of
comment, criticism, and suggestion from faculty and notably from
the students themselves.  That Riverside students managed all the
details, the introductions, and so on while keeping a low profile
struck me as helping to foster the spirit of geniality.

    As for the subjects ventured upon, issues of gender (notably
in Gaskell, Dickens, Gissing, and women autobiographers) headed
the list, tone and approach varying markedly from paper to paper
and not in any sense crowding out other topics.  These last
included power relations among classes, questions of genre,
aesthetics (in Ruskin, the Romantics), narratology (in Trollope
and Dickens), race, personal relations (within families and with
the "other"), and a spate of papers with structuralist orienta-
tions (written, I noticed, by male participants and dealing with
Dickens, Conan Doyle and--a surprise--William Jevons's "logic
piano") come to mind as I look back on the conference.

    As for theorists and critics, I would judge that Foucault got
the most mentions, both overt and covert, with Lacan together
with his Yugoslavian expositor, Slavoj Zizek, a fair second.
Freud chose to stay in the background, I thought, while Derrida
exercised a pervading influence rather than commanding the spot-
light.  If Marx got a mention I failed to hear it, but I noted
that both Lionel Trilling and Garrett Stewart were accorded the
honor of occasioning disagreement.

    For all the smoothness of its operations, the conference was
rather set on its ear by the opening response of James Kincaid of
USC.  Reading an hilarious letter written, he alleged, by the
Trollopian N. John Hall and three of his colleagues at New York's
City University, Kincaid managed to attack the academic practice
of paper reading and discussion, attack it root, bole, and
branch, and meanwhile distance himself from his own remarks with
expressions of indignation and dismay.  The multiple ironies at
play here were not obvious to all listeners, nor need they have
been.  For the "letter" did its job of attracting comment from
one participant after another and made us consider (perhaps too
briefly) what we were engaged in.  Most of us took the joking
seriously, even those who knew that Professors Kincaid and Hall
appear not about to give up reading papers and attending con-
ferences themselves, and that their bi-coastal barb-throwing has
amused themselves and others, sometimes gloriously.    .

    The student organizers (Kimberly Lutz and Kate Wall) were
given deserved acknowledgement, and I want to single out for spe-
cial praise the three best respondents: for her ready and lively
comments, Jennifer Brody of Riverside, and for their wonderfully
informed and constructive help, Hilary Schor of USC and Regenia
Gagnier of Stanford.

        Patrick McCarthy [[log in to unmask]
        Department of English
        University of California
        Santa Barbara, CA 93106