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Q&A: Mollie Barnes

19 Cents

Author: Kate Oestreich/Monday, April 30, 2018/Categories: The 19 Cents Blog

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Mollie Barnes is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. She works on nineteenth-century U.S. literature and transatlanticism. Her recent work—on Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Victorian Poetry, on Fanny Kemble in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and on Edith Wharton in the new Critical Insights volume—emphasizes revisionist representations of history in literary texts. Her current book project, Unifying Ambivalence: Transatlantic Italy and the Anglo-American Historical Imagination, studies problem texts written by Anglo-American expatriates during the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. At USCB, she teaches composition, and surveys and seminars in American literature, including “Abolitionism in the Sea Islands,” a course devoted to literature about local and global social reform in Beaufort County, South Carolina, which is the inspiration for her next major project. She is also co-founder and co-sponsor, with Dr. Lauren Hoffer, of May River Review, USCB’s interdisciplinary journal for undergraduate research.

Have you ever had something happen to you professionally that you thought was bad but turned out to be for the best? Yes! One moment that turned out to be very helpful for me, in more and less direct ways over the last few years, began with my own total annoyance with myself. I was trying to write my prospectus for my dissertation, and I had this vivid memory of a line from one of Margaret Fuller’s dispatches in my mind’s eye. I wanted to frame the argument and the organizational structure I’d worked out for my project through that passage, but when I went searching for it, I couldn’t find it. I could even picture the part of the page where I thought I’d remembered reading the passage, and I combed that book page by page, line by line for days looking for it. I finally found “the passage”: a paragraph that didn’t say what I remembered at all. It was much more nuanced. It resisted the neat argument and the neat organizational structure I’d plotted and planned. It changed the very way I read Fuller and the way I ended up reading other people through her. 

I’d like to say that this moment had immediate consequences for my writing. I’m not sure it did, even if it did provoke me to re-frame what I said and how in my prospectus and my dissertation. But I have circled back to that “lost quotation” panic many times since then. In re-working the dissertation into a book project, I’ve realized how important our own reading practices are to what I call “problem texts”—and how important these “problem texts” are to nineteenth-century historiography. My own misreading/misremembering of Fuller’s text has also inspired a series of new projects about her work: one on her critical afterlife and one on the complicated relationship between feminism and abolition in her late writing. Maybe most importantly, though, I think that seemingly annoying moment—not being able to find a passage I’d remembered reading so vividly—is something most people experience at some point. It’s given me pause so many times in my writing, and in my work helping students with their writing, since it reminds me how important it is to read things in context and over time.

Who was your favorite professor in graduate school and why? I am fortunate to call Tricia Lootens my professor, my mentor, and my friend. I am thankful to her for so many things—most of all that I’m still learning what she was teaching me when I got study with her in Park Hall and talk with her about writing at the sunniest table (near the front window) at the Athens, Georgia Espresso Royale. I’m grateful for hours spent with her discussing Felicia Hemans and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and how to streamline an article and why the shape of an argument matters. But I’m even more grateful for conversations with her about non-nineteenth-century things that continue to sustain me in this profession. One of the qualities I most admire about Tricia is the way she always made me feel safe to take intellectual risks. I think that must be a hard thing to do for graduate students when the stakes can feel so high. While I recognized immediately that the rigor I appreciated in her own scholarship is also something she expects of her students, I’m only now realizing the delicate balance she strikes as a writing professor and mentor: she makes me feel supported to write about ideas that begin in messy or risky forms, and she holds me accountable to spelling these ideas out with precision. Another of Tricia’s qualities that I find myself appreciating now even more than I did in graduate school is the real joy she takes in her work. We have had long talks about the joy we find in our various roles—how teaching feeds writing and writing feeds teaching. Simply put, studying with Tricia taught me to pause over the sweet moments that fill our day-to-day lives in this profession.

I love that I get to answer this question, in public, because Tricia is one of the most generous people I know. To borrow a Tricia-Lootens-ism, I’ll “risk a polemic” for just a moment to say this: I’m fortunate enough to work at a teaching institution, where, among other things, I’ve learned that some of the best and most powerful teaching and mentoring by my feminist colleagues happens in private, and therefore often invisible, ways: sharing conversations, even after the longest days, about what brings us joy in and out of our fields; writing notes of encouragement to students whose projects take meaningful intellectual risks; showing up to support one another at events or other labors of love. Tricia cares deeply about her students as people in and beyond the field, and I appreciate that she’s taught me, through her own actions, to appreciate the profound ways these friendships shape our lives in the humanities.

What is one of your favorite nineteenth-century quotations? I just finished teaching Emerson’s “The American Scholar” last week. I love the line about “creative reading.” I probably share it in every single course I teach: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Each sentence is doubly significant, and the our author is as broad as the world.”

What nineteenth-century chore would you absolutely hate doing? Definitely sweeping or washing and beating out rugs since (full disclosure) “vacuuming” is often left undone on my to-do list.

What is your favorite form of exercise that was popular in the nineteenth century? I do love walking, and I do love that passage in the opening of Thoreau’s “Walking” about sauntering. I started practicing yoga when I was in grad school, and I love that I have been able to come back to this practice when I’ve moved to new places since then. Part of making new places home is becoming part of strong, loving communities (beyond our universities!), and yoga helps me do that. Of course, “yoga” doesn’t mean the same thing in my small town in South Carolina in 2018 that it does for people in other places and at other cultural moments. At some point, I want to take the time to immerse myself in documentaries and histories I’ve bookmarked about yoga, especially those that address the nineteenth-century roots of current practices. I think my curiosity about this subject stems from the fact that I’ve learned to ask questions about how we imagine, and appropriate, cultures through frameworks in nineteenth-century studies.

 

 

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