Caution: methinks I feel a diatribe coming on. I do get to Trollope (eventually) after a long digression containing a mini intellectual autobiography as I attempt to sort out my interests (oh, what a tangled web I weave!), particularly regarding literature.
Those of you who know me can attest to the fact that I have a rather random intellectual background (which is not that unusual, I suspect, although it is getting increasingly difficult to make people in the admissions process appreciate such a varied set of interests in this age of specialization). I have a B.A. in Russian literature, a M.A. in American history, and an aborted first year of a Ph.D. program in American history (in which I tried to switch to Russian/Soviet Jewish history but didn’t continue for a variety of reasons). My M.A. is something of an anomaly–and it continues to surprise me–as it wasn’t what I intended to pursue when I decided to return to school. Timing, I discovered, is everything, and so I found myself as an accidental Americanist specializing in the 19th century (at the time I enrolled in the M.A. degree, the European program was in transition). Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time as an Americanist and I appreciate the importance of American history, but it’s not where my heart seems to want to lead me.
I now find myself taking grad classes on a nonmatriculated basis as I try to determine what the hell it is that I do want to study. And I am finding that, once again, the American side of the pond is leaving me rather cold. I am currently enrolled in two courses on 19th century American lit and I’m enjoying myself thoroughly (reading novels for class often beats reading history books), but I’m just not feeling the love for it overall. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I am reading Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a second time in my life and not really enjoying it any more than I did the first time; but I find my mind drifting too readily when dealing with the period, whether from an historical or literary point of view (and as my parents can attest, my mind is too ready to drift into lala land to begin with, so added impetus to veer off into daydreams can be something of a problem). I do enjoy American literature, but I find myself getting stir-crazy at times.
Although, as I continue to think about this, I think my real problem involves geographical constraints. I do like some 19th century American literature to be sure, but my interests are much broader (gee, really? would never have guessed at that). And while a comparativist sentiment is most definitely there in academia, the fact remains that when looking at most English graduate programs, I am discouraged by the fact that most “fields” continue to be defined by geographical boundaries. Now, I understand the importance of looking at literature within a nationalist context, but I also long to break free from boundaries that, when looking at intellectual history in particular, feel too confining. For example, U.S. writers did not just read and influence each other, they read French, German, Russian, and English works (and so on) as well. They may have been rooted in their own nationality, but they also participated in broader intellectual discussions. I know that a degree in comparative literature is an option, but at the same time, given how long it’s been since I used my Russian, German, French, and Spanish I’m not sure that this is a viable option at the moment (all I can say with authority in each of these languages is that I don’t speak them very well anymore–although, as a quirk of memory, I still know a few choice curse words to throw in for good measure). Moreover, perhaps I’ve been overly influenced by Milan Kundera’s argument about Die Weltliteratur (although he, himself, seems limited to a European context rather than one that is truly global in scope), but how should one position oneself as a student who would like to cross boundaries, and yet remain in an English (v. comparative lit) program? I tried to do this with my history ph.d. and it really got me nowhere (can anyone tell me why programs make you write a statement of purpose if they actually disregard that purpose altogether?). Perhaps this is just evidence of my inexperience as to the state of literary studies in this country, in which case, I am more than happy to be proven wrong!
So, to make a long diatribe short (too late!), I think I need to go read some Trollope. I’ll be getting the first disc of “The Way We Live Now” in the mail tomorrow (hooray!), but I think I need to go home tonight, curl up with some hot cocoa (especially since my Keurig coffee order should arrive today with some Ghirardelli hot chocolate in the box) and read one of Trollope’s “loose baggy monsters.” For some reason, I turn to Dickens, Trollope, or Tolstoy when I need some soul soothing–I think it’s easier to relax when I can get lost in the characters and sub-plots. And to anyone who might be in an English grad program, who would like to share advice, I’m willing to listen! And then, perhaps, I should challenge myself to choose a novel (or several) from countries all over the world and truly expand my reading base. Argh! So much knowledge to discover, and so little time!