Watkins, Adam Edward. “Environmental Self-making and the Urbanism of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho.” European Romantic Review, 28.5 (2017): 585-600. PDF:Watkins_Environmental_Self_Making
Abstract: This article addresses the overlooked significance of urban life to first-wave Gothic fiction and the work of Ann Radcliffe in particular. Despite its various remote settings, Radcliffe’s exemplary Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, reveals a pervasive concern with urban influence on mental life, one based on medical, educational, and travel writing of the era. Rather than denounce urban influence as mere dissipation, however, Radcliffe portrays the city as a necessary catalyst for the sensibility and subjectivity her novel champions. In turn and at large, Radcliffe puts forth a view of human development at once deterministic and self-determined, wherein human habitats can be manipulated, selected, and otherwise negotiated for the purpose of self-shaping.
Watkins, Adam Edward. “Objects, Cabinets, and Cities: Wordsworth and the Matter of the Romantic Mind.” Studies in Romanticism, 55 (Winter 2016): 559-584. watkins-wordsworth_matter_mind
Abstract: This article explores William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805) in relief to the eighteenth-century discourse on object play, as based in educational and sensationalist theory. From this discourse, Wordsworth develops a prescient theory of material engagement: that is, an awareness of the material world as an essential element in cognitive becoming. While Wordsworth begins and ends his narrative with the cognitive implications of his engagement with natural “playthings,” it is the city that proves the pinnacle technology of mental development. By figuring the city as a curio cabinet – understood as an epistemic technology in the discourse of object play – Wordsworth reveals the unique capacity of the urban sphere to be thought through, such that its epistemic structures assist knowledge formation and shape conceptual processes. Through his urban engagement, Wordsworth gains new insight into his own mental architecture and realizes the full extent to which “man and the objects that surround him [are] acting and re-acting on each other” (“Preface” to Lyrical Ballads). This study continues the recent critical reevaluation of the metropolis in the Romantic era, while also questioning more directly the common thinking of the Romantic selfas inward and autonomous. In turn, this study highlights the need for an externalist orientation to cognitive historicism, so as to better understand the relationships between material culture and cognitive becoming that were unique to the Romantic era and that remain latent in its literature.
Conference Presentations (most recent)
“Not Merely Deduction: A Case for Cognitive Externalism in Victorian Detective Fiction.” North American Victorian Studies Association Conference; Phoenix, AZ (Nov. 2016).
“‘Pour passer le temps’: the Railway Journey between Clough and Seinfeld.” Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference; Atlanta, GA (2015).
“‘The Distinctive Peculiarity of Organic Action’: Urban Realism, Adaptive Psychology, and Dickens.” North American Victorian Studies Association Conference; London, Canada (November 2014).
“Play, Epistemology, and the City in Wordsworth’s The Prelude.” North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference; Washington D.C. (June 2014).
“The Authority of Place in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.” North American Victorian Studies Association Conference; Venice, Italy (June 2013).
“The City in Mind: Environmental Self-Making in 19th-Century British Literature” proposes a new paradigm of subject formation based on environmental engagement, one which challenges the usual thinking about the 19th-century self and urban sphere. Scholars have long regarded autonomy and interiority as defining features of the 19th-century subject, leaving underexplored the role of external, environmental features in the psychic economy of this era. Yet, environmental influence was a pervasive, if subtle, cultural meme, concomitant with the rise of a modern urban sphere. In one sense, the city best demonstrated the influence of external conditions on nervous systems, mental life, and identity formation. Yet, the city also proved the capacity of humans to shape the environment that was shaping them. This reciprocity appears often in narratives of human development, as characters frequent or augment urban environments, thereby cultivating desired sensibilities, mental functions, and identities. In their prolonged examples of environmental engagement, these narratives develop the psychological and evolutionary theory of their day into a prescient understanding of human adaption through material culture. Challenging the common view of the 19th-century city as an unnatural threat to an inward and essential psyche, then, I argue for a divergent view, one which recognizes the city as a profound (if precarious) technology of self-formation.