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Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Number 55, August 2009

Victorian Studies and its Publics

Guest-edited by Linda K. Hughes

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (founding editor [romantic]) and Dino Franco Felluga (editor [victorian])

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1916-1441 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/039554ar

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Article

Public Funding and the “Untamed Wilderness” of Victorian Studies

Russell M. Wyland[1]

National Endowment for the Humanities

Abstract

Victorian studies emerged, like many interdisciplinary fields, during the 1950s and 1960s. While scholars today accept the validity of interdisciplinary work, it was not always so, and early issues of Victorian Studies and the Victorian Periodicals Newsletter reflect both scholars’ excitement over the prospect of interdisciplinary work and their hesitation in the face of an “untamed wilderness.” The same forces that gave rise to Victorian studies had their equivalent on Capitol Hill with passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. This essay explores the relationship between the emerging field of Victorian studies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The debates and methodological discussions that shaped the founding of the field left scholars well positioned to take advantage of opportunities offered by the Endowment. NEH-supported projects such as Walter Houghton’s Wellesley Index shaped Victorian studies in profound ways, and Victorian studies, in turn, helped shape the Endowment.


1

In January 1968, David DeLaura used the inaugural issue of the Victorian Periodicals Newsletter (VPN) to survey the scholarly landscape of Victorian studies. His letter to editor Michael Wolff described an “untamed wilderness surrounding the well-studied major literary and political figures of the era” (5). DeLaura’s “untamed wilderness” included not only a wealth of unstudied nineteenth-century texts and authors, but also the network of methodological paths connecting the well known and lesser known. The terrain must have seemed both familiar and hopelessly distant: publications such as Victorian Studies (VS) brought to view the interdisciplinary expanse beyond Arnold and Eliot, Tennyson and Browning, Disraeli and Gladstone; and yet scholars faced the wilderness with few research tools, limited access to archival materials, and little money to remedy the situation. A small band of scholars—including DeLaura, journal editor Michael Wolff, and Wellesley Index editor Walter Houghton—embarked on a mission to open the new frontier to U.S. scholars. Like American studies, African American studies, and other “studies” emerging in the 1950s and 1960s, Victorian studies sought to create something intellectually greater than the sum of the disciplines from which it grew.

2

Concurrent with this new impetus in scholarship, a consortium of arts and humanities activists led by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools, and Phi Beta Kappa were laying the groundwork for a federal agency “to meet a need no less serious than for national defense” (Commission on the Humanities, 1). By 1964, the consortium’s umbrella group—the Commission on the Humanities—had reported its findings to the United States Congress and President Johnson, resulting in passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (PL89-209). President Johnson had advocated passage of the bill, announcing to Congress on 10 March 1965 that the time had come to

explore the nature of man’s culture and to deepen understanding of the sources and goals of human activity. Our recommendations [for the NEH] recognize this effort as a central part of the American national public purpose, and provide modest support to those whose work offers promise of extending the boundaries of understanding.

NEH, Annual Report 1966 4

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a publicly funded grant-making agency, made its first four awards in 1966 and began accepting applications in 1967. This essay examines the relationship between the NEH and the emerging field of Victorian studies and argues that the debates and methodological discussions that shaped the founding of the field left scholars well positioned to take advantage of public funding. The relationship was symbiotic, with NEH-supported projects shaping the field of Victorian studies, and Victorian studies, in turn, helping to shape the Endowment.

1. Defining the Victorian Studies Wilderness

3

Like other interdisciplinary "studies" movements, Victorian studies had roots in postwar social forces, participating in what Patricia Spacks has recently called the “revolution in the humanities” (11). The war brought an influx of European scholars to colleges and universities in the United States, and the G.I. Bill broadened and deepened America’s educated class. New entrants to the American academy perceived the civilizing nature of the humanities as an “essential bulwark against barbarism,” and in the “broad reshaping tendency within the humanities, the organizational model customarily pursued was that of the interdisciplinary program” (Marcus 19). Newly minted PhDs demonstrated willingness to blaze their own paths, even when those paths led to editorial work and collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines and away from traditional tenure-review structures. Postwar scholars were more cosmopolitan, sought to understand their subjects in broader terms, had less respect for established disciplinary boundaries, and sought an expansion of the professoriate to accommodate the kind of scholarship they envisioned. Although interdisciplinary work had always existed in some form, this new generation sought to name it, define it against the established disciplines, develop theoretical approaches to foster it, and institutionalize it.

4

For Victorian studies, the public process of naming, defining, developing, and institutionalizing began in September 1957 with the first issue of Victorian Studies. While scholars today accept the validity of interdisciplinary work, it was not always so, and even VS editors Philip Appleman, William Madden, and Michael Wolff seemed to be working without a script as they articulated the type of scholarship VS hoped to foster. In their “Prefatory Note I,” they identified two features that separated Victorian studies from more conventional studies in literature or history: Victorian studies included “concentration on the English culture of a particular age," as well as "openness to critical and scholarly studies from all the relevant disciplines” (3). With VS, they endeavored to

capture something of the life of that era, to discuss its events and personalities, and to interpret and appraise its achievements. This hope is more likely to be realized through the coordination of academic disciplines than in departmental isolation. It is the tradition for journals to devote themselves to particular disciplines, but Victorian Studies will publish work addressed to all students of the Victorian age.

3

Judging from the “Comments and Queries” that followed, VS’s mission received attention, if not always rousing support, from other publications. In the December 1957 issue, for example, the editors noted with pride that VS had been identified by the Times as a symptom of a recent “lend-lease” to the United States of the “Victorian age in its entirety” (211). In March 1958, VS editors repeated the less condescending praise garnered from the Victorian Newsletter and the British Library Review (308). Reading between the lines, however, it becomes less clear that everyone working on nineteenth-century topics was immediately convinced. As with many interdisciplinary endeavors of the time, Victorian studies came to be understood by some as not simply distinct from traditional approaches, but hostile to them. While VS's "Prefatory Note I" was likely written in the spirit of promoting scholarship and community, some doubtless saw the new approach as antagonistic to traditional departmental structures; others were uncertain of how their specialized graduate training prepared them for more wide-ranging inquiries; and still others greeted Victorian studies as liberating.

5

Only one year after printing "Prefatory Note I," VS editors found it necessary to open their second volume with “Prefatory Note II,” a clarification on what they meant by the coordination of academic disciplines, the isolation of departments, and the place of specialization. Some readers, it seems, needed reassurance that VS did not consider “an expert writing in his own field” as unwelcome (3). “As we see it,” the editors continued,

[the coordination of disciplines] requires in a scholar two qualities over and above that of competence in a particular discipline: a sense of the relation of his topic to the important ideas, movements, and personalities in the age; and the insight and skill to make this relationship clear….In short, our intention is not to dispense with specialized competence, but to make it more broadly effective.

3

The editors of VS learned a valuable lesson during their first year: while ongoing debates over the definition of Victorian studies, its chronological parameters, and its methods were vital for the health of the new field, VS could best serve the field by reporting on the debates and educating readers on how to cross traditional boundaries legitimately.

6

Although VS took a more measured stand on the field’s controversies, the vigor of the debates did not diminish. Reporting on the ACLS-funded Symposium on Victorian Affairs at Indiana University in 1962, editors described lively engagements over what it meant to do interdisciplinary work. Their “Notes Towards the Definition of ‘Interdisciplinary’" carefully navigated between those who wanted to end traditional institutional divisions and those who wanted to preserve them:

What, in fact, are interdisciplinary studies being interdisciplinary about? Was the Symposium attempting by interdisciplinary means to move closer to a reconstruction of the Victorian period so as to capture the sense of its felt life? Or was it rather an attempt on the part of each of the participants to find a better way to pursue his own discipline? These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, but there is an important difference in emphasis involved, the former perhaps entailing a commitment to a new kind of discipline, the latter continuing a commitment to a traditional one.

205

7

As debates raged among practitioners over the nature of Victorianist work, VS editors found ways to educate readers whose interests had been piqued by the prospect of interdisciplinary approaches. In the “Comments and Queries” section of the second issue, the editors printed testimonials elucidating “the helpfulness of an interdisciplinary journal to . . . particular fields” within Victorian studies (211). T. S. R. Boase, then President of Magdalen College, Oxford, served as the first respondent, describing the interconnectedness of the “tensions of the forties, with famine, Chartism, and cholera looming large” with the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the poems of Keats and Tennyson. While testimonials such as Boase’s were no doubt suggestive and, perhaps, inspiring to novice Victorianists, they did not explain and demonstrate the method (211). That task was left to Michael Wolff, who in September 1962 used “Victorian Study: An Interdisciplinary Essay” to explicate how one should develop “working hypotheses about the nature of the period under study at such a high level of abstraction that they rise above what can be considered merely in terms of any one discipline” (60). To demonstrate his method, Wolff offers two simple claims as examples. First, “whatever Peel might have in common with Walpole as a politician or Browning with Dryden as a poet, what Peel and Browning share as Victorians is of equal importance.” Second, “the Victorianness of the Victorians can be studied better if, so to speak, the patterns of their careers can be gauged by the single instrument of an interdisciplinary hypothesis” (60). Thus, VS traveled two parallel and equally important lines. One line fostered the debate among experienced scholars over the nature and methods of Victorian studies, while a second educated those who had been trained in the traditional disciplines and were eager to broaden their work.

8

Judging by the space in the journal devoted to both methodological infighting and instruction, VS editors must have felt alternately like pariahs for questioning the value of traditional departments and like Prometheus for bringing fire to the skeptics, the curious, and the ignorant alike. What is central to the present essay, however, is that by attending to the larger methodological issues in the field, Wolff and VS created both a framework for scholars to think about their own work and a discourse for talking about it. The ability of readers to articulate the significance of their projects and contextualize them within previous scholarship would be key to earning NEH support. While consensus might never have formed around a definition of Victorian studies, the debates in VS fostered conceptual arguments for relevance and significance and, moreover, helped those in the discussion identify how to go about exploring their wilderness.

9

Credit (or blame) for building Victorian studies cannot be granted solely to Michael Wolff and the early editors of VS. In its day, Walter Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind (1957) set the standard for interdisciplinary work on the nineteenth century by examining how the “articulate classes” revealed themselves in their texts. Houghton described his work as drawing on "literature in the broad sense that includes letters and diaries, history, sermons, and social criticism, as well as poetry and fiction" (xv). At a time when funding sources for such work were scarce, Houghton proudly acknowledged that his research was made possible by support from both his institution, Wellesley College, and a generous fellowship from a private foundation (xi). For many, the publication of Houghton's work seen in retrospect marked the birth of “the agenda for an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the nineteenth century” (Shattock 2034).[2] However, it was Houghton’s Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals that transformed the agenda into action, becoming the project around which the burgeoning field of Victorian studies would rally.

10

The breadth of research materials needed to produce The Victorian Frame of Mind made Houghton aware that research tools for interdisciplinary study of the nineteenth century were seriously lacking, and he devoted his remaining career to remedying the situation. Not surprisingly, VS was an early and vocal advocate of Houghton’s project. After announcing the Index in the “Comments and Queries” section in December 1959 (222), VS ran frequent updates on Houghton’s progress and carried Houghton’s pleas for assistance. With an army of volunteers identifying sources and attributions, the Index became the field’s project. To contribute to the Index meant associating with the most important scholars of the day: a junior scholar's work could be publicly acknowledged next to that of Richard Altick, Dwight Culler, Gordon Haight, Geoffrey Tillotson, and Rosemary Van Arsdel, and Houghton rarely missed an opportunity to acknowledge his debts of gratitude. The Index was not only the quintessential Victorian studies project, but also the first test of the economic viability of Victorian studies. Wellesley College supported the Index during its first four years, after which it had to search for funds. In “An Editorial” in the September 1962 issue, VS editors deemed the Index

unquestionably one of the most significant undertaken in our field in recent years, and we therefore believe VS readers will be concerned, as the editors of this magazine are, to learn of the failure of the major foundations to grant the Index the kind of financial support that such an important project merits.

4

The Index would continue to scrape by for the next five years as Houghton and a small team of scholars prepared the first volume. Ongoing support for the Index, however, would have to wait until after the founding of NEH in 1965.

2. Exploring NEH and the Victorian Studies Wilderness

11

The broad re-shaping of Victorian studies and other humanities disciplines had its equivalent movement in Washington, D.C. While the field argued over the meaning of Victorian studies, VS editors educated their readers, and Walter Houghton sought funding for the Wellesley Index, a debate raged on Capitol Hill over creation of a federal cultural agency devoted to supporting the humanities. The founding legislation for the National Endowment for the Humanities—the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (PL89-209)—offers two powerful rationales for its creation. First, the humanities strengthens American democracy: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens and . . . it must therefore foster and support a form of education designed to make men masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.” Barnaby C. Keeney, former President of Brown University and first NEH Chairman, used equally high rhetoric in the NEH Annual Report for 1966 to describe the Endowment's mission: “Other things can make us wealthy and powerful; the humanities are to make us wise, and they lead us to apply our wisdom in ways which can heal both private and public life” (2). Like postwar scholars, Congress had come to regard the civilizing effect of the humanities as protection against anti-democratic forces. Keeney extended that idea by showing the humanities' ability to solve problems within democratic societies. The wisdom of the humanities—distinct from scientific knowledge—would bridge cultures and provide Americans the resources to be good citizens.

12

Second, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 described the humanities as generative of a type of Whiggish national progress: "A high civilization must . . . give full value and support to the . . . great branches of man's scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future." These lofty words reflect the optimism that marked both Johnson-era Great Society thinking and interdisciplinary scholarship of the day. In Victorian Frame of Mind, for example, Houghton strikes a similar note: “to look into the Victorian mind is to see some primary sources of the modern mind. . . . In short, to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn a flashlight on the landscape of 1880 is to see our own situation a little more clearly” (xiv-xv).

13

In its earliest years, the Endowment divided its activities into three general areas of grant making: fellowships and stipends for individual scholars; research and publications for large-scale scholarly projects; and educational and special projects. While the Endowment sought to take a leadership role, Chairman Keeney hinted at disciplinary flux. “The state of the humanities is difficult to read at present,” he noted in his the Annual Report for 1966. “On the one hand, there is more activity and innovation than in any past period in this country; on the other hand, there is considerable discontent with some of the paths which humanists are traveling” (19). Despite the rapid expansion of the humanities and the uncertainty that had resulted, Keeney foresaw a role for the agency: “If the humanities are relevant to life (they are), our knowledge of them must grow both in extent and sophistication; this means support for research” (19). Keeney argues for “programs that make humanistic research more effective, by developing the individual humanists, by helping humanists work cooperatively on major research projects, and by encouraging the humanist to emphasize the relevance of his research to the nature of life” (19). Keeney’s vision of the Endowment’s ideals of scholarly research could just as easily have been a description of the intellectual project pursued by Houghton, Wolff, and the early editors of VS: they used their journal to “grow in extent and sophistication” interest in Victorian studies; they enabled scholars to “work cooperatively on major research projects;” and they educated the Victorian studies scholar on “the relevance of his research” to larger issues. Therefore, when the NEH opened its doors in 1966 with a staff of seven and a modest budget of $2.5 million, scholars of Victorian studies stood ready. [3]

3. Converging Research and Funding Agendas

14

If VS functioned independently to prepare scholars with the rhetoric and arguments that would articulate the very goals set out by Congress for the NEH, then the chatty Victorian Periodicals Newsletter and its entrepreneurial editor Michael Wolff served as the mouthpiece for the kinds of funding needed for Victorian studies immediately after NEH opened its doors. VPN was initially a home-grown production that sprang from Wolff's passion for the nineteenth-century periodical press. The mimeographed first issue went to subscribers of VS in January 1968, with Wolff using the informal style of a newsletter to invite “contributions . . . from a brief reporting of research in progress or a short and straightforward query to a several-page description of an achievement or a difficulty or a proposal” (Proposals and Reports 3). In the first three issues, over fifty contributors responded with letters reprinted in the “Proposals and Reports” section of the newsletter. These contributions, ranging from three lines to three pages, reveal a diverse, energetic field of great plans and few resources. Taken collectively, they offer a sort of “wish list” for Victorian studies. David DeLaura at the University of Texas and Nicholas Salerno at Arizona State University were among a majority of contributors seeking to improve their own research and advocating that VPN gather topics, in the words of DeLaura, “worthy of consideration by Victorian scholars and prospective doctoral candidates” (5). Such desiderata would have the effect of guiding individual research and exposing gaps in knowledge. Others, such as Charles Nickerson at the College of William and Mary and Stanley Weintraub at Pennsylvania State University, wrote to VPN with specific problems on their current research projects. For instance, Nickerson queried the readership for evidence that J. A. Symonds and W. H. Mallock had been acquainted in the 1870s in light of Oscar Browning’s 1906 recollections (10-11). Weintraub solicited help identifying citations of Victorian dramas that appeared in the periodical press (12). What matters here is that VPN reflected the field’s deep-seated interest in individual scholarly work and, by extension, the need for funding to do it.

15

During its first eight years, NEH spent over $360,000 on forty-four Fellowships and Summer Stipends in Victorian studies (see Table A below). That "cross-pollination" between NEH and the Victorian studies journals occurred should come as no surprise, given the parallel course each endeavor charted. In the first year of grant making, Nicholas Salerno received a grant to study editor Thomas Bird Mosher and the Mosher Press. William Scheuerle at the University of South Florida received a summer stipend to complete a biographical and critical study of Victorian editor Henry Kingsley, which resulted in The Neglected Brother; A Study of Henry Kingsley (1971). On the eve of holding his award, Scheuerle used the “Proposals and Reports” section of the June 1968 issue of VPN to announce that he had compiled a list of Henry Kingsley’s contributions to Victorian periodicals, and Wolff praised Scheuerle for making the list available to the Wellesley Index (10). In 1967 Norman Kelvin received a fellowship to begin the laborious search for the letters of William Morris; the first of five volumes of The Collected Letters of William Morris would not appear until 1984. Joseph Wiesenfarth's fellowship on myth enabled him to begin research on George Eliot's Mythmaking (1977). Robert Patten, longtime editor of Studies in English Literature and current board member of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, received a fellowship to begin research on what would become Charles Dickens and His Publishers (1978). Ulrich Knoepflmacher, who had written a review of the first volume of the Wellesley Index for VS in March 1967, received a senior fellowship in 1972 to scrutinize the relationship between the Romantics and Victorians. In short, a number of foundational projects emerged from the mutually catalytic efforts of Victorian studies scholars and the NEH.

 

Table A

NEH Fellowships and Summer Stipends to Individual Scholars, 1967-1973[4]

16

While the overwhelming “want” in VPN was for the promotion of individual scholarship, the overwhelming “need” was for tools and access to research materials, the kinds of projects that were not easily undertaken by lone scholars. Verna Wittrock from Eastern Illinois University expressed frustration at doing interdisciplinary work without ready access to research materials.

I have long felt the need of cooperative and organized assistance in finding and gaining access to nineteenth-century British periodicals. Therefore, I should like to suggest that a center for the study of Victorian periodical materials be established in the Middlewest [sic] of the United States, preferably at Indiana University or the University of Illinois, and that it be supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

8

Wittrock’s request, unique for its early mention of the NEH, expressed what many were hoping for: access. Wolff responded in the “Proposals and Reports” section of the same issue:

It seems to be obvious that a case for financing research in Victorian periodicals . . . could be put more strongly by a group of scholars in a joint brief than by individual scholars applying separately. Indeed since the work in question really calls for cooperation rather than competition, such an application would have formal (and even moral) appropriateness. If there is amongst us an experienced grantsman, not already fully committed with making his own claims, Miss Wittrock and the rest of us would greatly value his advice. It might be well at least to learn which grant-giving organizations would take us seriously.

9-10

17

Although it is unclear if Wittrock, Wolff, or any other uncommitted “experienced grantsman” ever proposed to NEH a center for the study of Victorian periodicals,[5] the Endowment from the beginning funded institutional research, frequently in an effort to provide greater access to the raw materials of scholarship (see Table B). Of particular note in this category are Maurianna Adams at Smith College and Richard Haven at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who received four grants to prepare a definitive, annotated, and indexed bibliography of published materials concerning Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the second issue of VPN, Adams admits that the “bibliography which we originally conceived of as a scholarly tool for Coleridgeans” had expanded because of the expertise of Victorians and to meet the needs of Victorian studies scholars for whom “Coleridge can serve as a focal point of Victorian attitudes to poetry, criticism, theology—on down to drug addition, impracticality, and idiosyncratic marital arrangements” (20). Adams reports further that

our venture was financed during 1967/8 by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the resulting publicity brought us to the attention of two bibliographers (Edward Lauterback of Purdue and Walter Crawford of Long Beach) who were also compiling a finding-list of Coleridge criticism, derived mainly from scattered bibliographies already in existence. The four of us have pooled our resources, agreed upon full collaborative status, and worked out a division of labor.

20

To the four awards to Adams and Haven, Crawford added a fifth, and the three-volume Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Scholarship appeared over twenty years beginning in 1976.

 

Table B

NEH Research and Publication Funding, 1967-1973 (excluding the Wellesley Index)[6]

18

The Wellesley Index mobilized Victorian studies unlike any other project, so it should not come as a surprise that Walter Houghton's grand enterprise set the standard at NEH not only for scholars of Victorian studies, but also for tools projects to the present day. In 1967, Houghton and his team received their first grant—$13,890—to support final preparation for volume one and begin work on volume two. Houghton used the January 1968 issue of VPN to announce that the Index “at long last, has obtained support—from the National Endowment for the Humanities” (15). NEH’s longevity, however, was still unproven, and Houghton had known too many funding difficulties to take NEH assistance for granted. “But if that [NEH funding] is cut off, as is now the case with many government projects outside of the sciences, we shall be faced with a new crisis. For we cannot continue without financial backing” (15). He returned to the NEH in 1968 and received $15,130. By the time Houghton died in April 1983, he had secured eleven successive grants for the Index, an enviable record unrivaled at the time. From its first grant in 1967, the Wellesley Index did not go a day without funding (see Table C). In all, the Index received just over $480,000 in federal funds, and when the Endowment celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1990, Lynne Cheney—the Endowment’s only Victorianist Chairman—used the Annual Report to place the Wellesley Index among the agency's most important projects (6).

 

Table C

Funding for the Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals, 1967-1983[7]

19

As a single accomplishment at NEH in the area of Victorian studies, the Wellesley Index is unrivaled.[8] Arguably the most fundamental and valuable corporate accomplishment, however, did not begin until 1975 when NEH began support specifically for editions of letters, literary works, and other historical documents. The success of Victorian studies editions is staggering. Among others, NEH funding made possible one volume of the diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, three volumes of her letters with Mary Russell Mitford, sixteen volumes of the complete correspondence of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, nineteen volumes of the collected letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, one volume of letters by Matthew Arnold, two volumes of poetry by John Clare, one volume of Charles Dickens's working notebooks, five volumes of the complete poetical works of Thomas Hardy, eight volumes of the complete works of William Thackeray, one volume of Thackeray's uncollected correspondence, two volumes of the letters of Anthony Trollope, four volumes of the letters of William Morris, one volume of the poetry of Christina Rossetti, ten volumes of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, and one volume of the letters between J. S. Mill and Auguste Comte. Over its forty-three years, NEH-funded editions in Victorian studies—several of which are ongoing—have received just over $5.5 million. These editions are the building blocks of Victorian studies, making possible long term and continuing vitality in the field.

4. Transforming the Victorian Studies Wilderness

20

Did applications submitted by scholars of Victorian studies fare disproportionately well at NEH? One might speculate that seven awards to individual scholars in 1967 is a very good result, but NEH made 286 awards to individual scholars that year. Given the breadth of humanistic inquiry, how many awards to one field is an appropriate number? Does that number differ if the field is experiencing a particular moment of energizing growth, as in the years of Houghton, VS, and VPN? Such questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Information on the Endowment’s earliest competitions is scant, and unfunded applications—which could potentially reveal aspects of the Endowment’s history—are protected under the Privacy Act. Funded applications—by being successful—tell an almost uniformly positive story about the Endowment. It is difficult, therefore, to assess Victorian studies’ (or any other field’s) "win-loss" record at NEH.

21

Still, the successes of Houghton’s Wellesley Index and the number of edited volumes of works and letters by Victorian authors would seem to support a claim that NEH shares responsibility for the health of Victorian studies. The excitement and good ideas of the 1950s and 1960s were not in themselves sufficient to establish a new area of study; financial assistance from NEH was needed to transform the enthusiasm and ideas into scholarship and tools that would help define a field. However, this idea can also be turned around. In both its creation and its grant-making activities, NEH functions first and foremost as a mirror of the academy’s values. Victorian studies was created by post-war scholars with particular values and priorities that matched those of NEH. Funding Victorian studies helped NEH fulfill its mandate. Walter Houghton, an accomplished scholar in his own right, no doubt wrote eloquent and persuasive proposals for funding (he seems to have had a lot of practice before the rise of NEH), but the Index was a collaborative project that generated enthusiasm from a wide range of scholars studying an even wider range of topics. The peer review process merely reflected, validated, and rewarded the field’s scholarly values.

22

It is clear that Victorian studies authors and editors shared the commitment of NEH founders to “achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future." Joseph Wiesenfarth, for example, notes in the introduction to George Eliot’s Mythmaking that he both endeavors to understand Eliot within a nineteenth-century context and to consider how "the past provides the present with models that teach us about . . . our human nature and civilization" (21). Moreover, he identifies in Eliot a similar interest: "Eliot knew that the present depends upon the past and that the modern writer was only being realistic in drawing on the unlimited wisdom of his greatest predecessors" (21). Likewise, Norman Kelvin's introduction to volume two of the letters of William Morris positions Morris as "a man of our time," and notes that Morris, after historical inquiry, asks "where have we arrived, and where do we want to go?" (xxxiv). Indeed, some of Victorian studies’ successes at NEH can also be attributed to the forward-looking Victorians themselves. Meredith Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, editors of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's correspondence with Mary Mitford, recount how in 1844 Mitford threatened to recall from friends the letters she had written lest they be published without her permission. E.B.B. scolded Mitford: "You never would or could invoke away from me the twelve volumes (to be moderate in my calculation) of letters, which people will be reading under the trees a hundred years from now" (xxv). 165 years and several grants from NEH later, scholars can read nineteen volumes of the Browning correspondence, including letters to and from Mary Mitford.

23

NEH can rightly claim credit for building the infrastructure of modern Victorian studies. At the same time, however, Victorian studies can rightly claim credit for the success of the Endowment. The rigor of funded Victorian studies scholars helped set standards for funding, not only for other Victorianists but also for scholars in other emerging disciplines. Through the years, NEH has been accused occasionally of not staying current with trends in the academy, and this charge might be true in some areas. In the case of Victorian studies, however, NEH has functioned as its founders had hoped by reflecting values of scholars working across the disciplines. Victorian Studies taught a burgeoning field how to define and conceptualize itself and gave it a discourse for arguing its own importance. The Victorian Periodicals Newsletter helped mobilize the field to articulate its research agenda. Although much of the terrain surrounding the well-studied major literary and political figures has been tamed, there is much "wilderness" remaining, and the NEH likewise continues its mission, as articulated by President Johnson, to “explore” culture and to deepen understanding of the sources and goals of human activity.


Biographical Notice

Russell M. Wyland, Assistant Director of Research at the National Endowment for the Humanities, is completing a book on Oxford University, failure, and the early nineteenth-century periodical press. His work has been supported by the American Philosophical Society and the English Speaking Union, and his research has been recognized with the VanArdsel Prize given by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals.

 

Notes

[1]

The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the National Endowment for the Humanities. Only public sources of information were used in the preparation of this article.

[2]

Joseph Bristow has recently offered a more critical assessment of Houghton’s work, arguing that the “thematic strands of faith and doubt” that run through The Victorian Frame of Mind are simultaneously “too exclusionary and too vague” (84-85). Houghton’s work, Bristow concludes, ultimately devalues Victorian authors and works that do not engage themes of belief and unbelief. Although Bristow’s immediate concern is poetry, his larger, implicit point about the potential tyranny of a strong thesis is compelling.

[3]

Early NEH appropriations can be confusing. Although founded in 1965, NEH opened its doors in fiscal year 1966. Congress appropriated $2.5 million for grants in fiscal year 1966, but by the time programs were defined and applications were requested, the fiscal year was just about over. Thus, the Endowment made only $39,000 in grants during FY 1966. Congress allowed the Endowment to spend the balance plus $2 million in new money the following year. Fiscal year 1967, therefore, is generally considered the first year of NEH awards. This situation is described in the NEH Annual Report for both fiscal year 1966 and 1967. See pages 23 and 30 respectively.

[4]

All figures are taken from NEH Annual Reports, 1967-1973.

[5]

There are two obstacles to conducting historical research on NEH. First, applications not funded are protected under the Privacy Act. Second, only Endowment records post-1980 are computerized. Records of grants made before 1980 are sometimes incomplete.

[6]

All figures are taken from the NEH Annual Reports, 1967-1973. The Wellesley Index is treated separately below.

[7]

All figures are taken from the NEH Annual Report. Note that NEH began giving three-year grants to the Wellesley Index in 1976.

[8]

Given the success of the print version of the Wellesley Index, it should come as no surprise that it has been recently re-launched as a searchable online index. This new effort has not received NEH funding and, regrettably, is available by subscription only.

 

Works Cited

 

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Appleman, Philip, William Madden, and Michael Wolff. “Comments and Queries.” Victorian Studies 3.2 (1959): 222-223.

 

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Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, 1957.

 

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Shattock, Joanne. “Looking Backward, Looking Forward: MLA Members Speak.” PMLA. 115.7 (2000): 1986-2076. DOI:10.2307/463623

 

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Revolution in the Humanities.” Daedalus 135.2 (2006): 11-14. DOI:10.1162/daed.2006.135.2.11

 

Weintraub, Stanley. Letter. Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 1 (Jan. 1968): 12.

 

Wiesenfarth, Joseph. George Eliot’s Mythmaking. Heidelberg: Winter, 1977.

 

Wittrock, Verna. Letter. Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 1 (Jan. 1968): 9.

 

Wolff, Michael. “Proposals and Reports.” Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 1 (Jan. 1968): 3-12.

 

Wolff, Michael. “Victorian Study: An Interdisciplinary Essay.” Victorian Studies 8.1 (1964): 59-70.

Author: Russell M. Wyland
Title: Public Funding and the “Untamed Wilderness” of Victorian Studies
Journal: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 55, August 2009
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/039554ar
DOI: 10.7202/039554ar

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