Irish Studies, Literature

Ireland, Migration and Return Migration – In Conversation with Sinéad Moynihan

Drawing on literary, historical and cultural studies perspectives, Sinéad Moynihan’s Ireland, Migration and Return Migration examines the phenomenon of the “Returned Yank” in the cultural imagination. Taking as its point of departure The Quiet Man (1952), it provides a cultural history that charts the ways in which the Returned Yank indexes a set of recurring anxieties in Ireland from 1952 to the present. We spoke to Sinéad Moynihan to find out more about the book.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Ireland, Migration and Return Migration and what drew you to focus your research in this area?

My interest in the “Returned Yank” arises out of both scholarly and personal attachments. My previous book, “Other People’s Diasporas”: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2013) was interested in how unprecedented in-migration was negotiated in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years. A notable feature of this moment was the question of how many immigrants to Ireland were themselves Irish (i.e. returnees). Because the returnee is both an immigrant and of Irish descent, s/he came to occupy an interesting position in debates about immigration to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years. In the book, I discussed the significance of the “Returned Yank” in relation to Des Bishop’s stand-up comedy, the film The Nephew (dir. Eugene Brady, 1998) and Ronan Noone’s play The Blowin of Baile Gall (2002). It was while writing that book that I realised a full-length cultural history of the “Returned Yank” figure had not yet been written.

From a personal point of view, my maternal grandmother was a “Returned Yank.” Unfortunately, I never met her but reading, in particular, Edna O’Brien’s work did make me wonder about the many Irish women migrants who returned to Ireland to marry and have children, and how different their lives might have been had they stayed in the U.S.

This is the first full-length study of the “Returned Yank” figure, and return migration is quite an under-examined aspect of Irish diaspora studies. Why do you think these areas have been somewhat overlooked?

I think there are a couple of answers to that question. First, is that actual return migration to Ireland from the U.S. was low compared with other countries. One historian estimates that, between 1899 and 1924, only 9 percent of Irish emigrants returned from the U.S. to live in their homeland, compared with 14 percent of Germans, 15 percent of Scandinavians, 33 percent of Poles, 45 percent of Italians, 53 percent of Greeks and 87 percent of Russians (Wyman 16). Irish census figures taken since 1922 show that the only periods during which there was demonstrable return migration (from anywhere, not just the U.S.) were the 1970s and the Celtic Tiger years. Nonetheless, there has been scholarly work – mostly from an historical and/or sociological point of view – that studies this phenomenon.

But I was interested in the fact that, despite these low rates of actual return, the “Returned Yank” looms large in the cultural imagination. I would guess that for most Irish people older than maybe 40, the term is still quite a meaningful one, conjuring up a whole set of associations that have been amplified and reinforced by representations of the “Returned Yank” in literature and on film, especially (perhaps) The Quiet Man (dir. John Ford, 1952). Some of those associations? His/her largesse; nostalgia for an Ireland now gone; a vocabulary peppered with Americanisms (panty hose; pocketbooks); or, when framed in more negative terms, what Philip O’Leary sums up as “flashy clothes, conspicuous wealth, ignorance, bombast, and a distressing accent.”

The Quiet Man and Angela’s Ashes are two of the most well-known “Returned Yank” narratives. Besides these two, which of the novels or films you focused on during this research would you highlight as key in studying this figure in the cultural imagination and why?

The answer here has to be Edna O’Brien’s work! Before beginning this research project several years ago, I had read little of O’Brien’s work. Inspired by my colleague, Dr. Ellen McWilliams’s brilliant work on the novel, I began with The Light of Evening (2006) and worked backwards from there. I soon realised that the Irish woman, who returns to Ireland after living for several years in the U.S., marries and bears children, is a recurring character in O’Brien’s work, from Maura Neary Brady in The Country Girls (1960) to Dilly Macready in The Light of Evening. More often than not, return to Ireland in O’Brien’s fiction is, for those women characters, the forerunner to the infinite disappointments, challenges and struggles of married life and motherhood in Ireland. Numerous O’Brien Returned Yank women remember with nostalgia the fashionable clothing they wore in America, the parties they attended and the glamour of their lives. O’Brien’s interest in Returned Yank women is at least partly autobiographical: her mother was a Returned Yank. In the O’Brien papers held at Emory University, I came across an unpublished typescript of A Novel of Lena and Michael (c.1997), which described how Lena worked as a shopgirl in New York when, on what she intended to be a brief return visit to Ireland, she was strongly encouraged by her family to marry a well-heeled local man. (Lena and Michael were O’Brien’s parents’ actual names). The typescript was accompanied by a handwritten note from O’Brien: “A Novel of Lena/Michael (never written) Never will. Dec. 1st 1997.”

Could you tell us the story behind the image by David Creedon Photography which you chose for the cover of Ireland, Migration and Return Migration? What was the reason for this image being chosen?

I first became aware of David Creedon’s work when I heard Dr. Tina O’Toole of the University of Limerick mention his book of photographs, Ghosts of the Faithful Departed (2011) in a paper she delivered at the American Conference for Irish Studies at UCD in 2014. Tina was particularly interested in what the “American dress” signifies and she showed a very evocative image of such a dress from Ghosts of the Faithful Departed. When I bought the book myself, I came across an image called “The Return,” featuring a trunk belonging to Mary Sullivan, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1930 and returned 19 years later. I thought it would be the perfect cover image for the book because the trunk looms large in depictions of the Returned Yank.

I particularly liked that it showed labels and stickers, as these minutiae are often invested with deep significance in Returned Yank narratives. “Lemonade,” for example, is a short story in which a young girl is preparing to move from the U.S. back to Ireland with her parents (much like Lavin did in real life). Prior to their departure, the family has their neighbours around for a few drinks to bid them farewell. One nosy neighbour, Ma Spiddal, is trying to find out whether the family will be sailing in steerage or in first class by “gently, but persuasively, pushing apart the two big steamer trunks” to pore over the labels attached to them. In The Country Boy, Returned Yank Eddie and his wife, Julia, pay a visit to Eddie’s home place in Co. Mayo, bringing with them a large trunk bedecked with a “stateroom” sticker and an expensive camera. By the end of the play, however, it is revealed that the trunk is empty and the camera rented: they felt the need to put on a façade of prosperity and success for their relatives back in Ireland.

What are you going to be working on next?

I’m at the very (very!) early stages of a new project, provisionally entitled: “The View From the Kitchen”: Domestic Workers in American Literature, 1942-1974. Some readers will recognise that the title is taken from a Maeve Brennan short story that appeared in the New Yorker in 1953. With a focus on depictions of African American and white ethnic domestic workers, the project explicitly builds on my expertise in African American and Irish American literatures.

For more information on Ireland, Migration and Return Migration, please visit our website.


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Tyranny and Usurpation – In Conversation with Doyeeta Majumder

Tyranny and Usurpation investigates the political, legal, historical circumstances under which the ‘tyrant’ of early Tudor drama becomes conflated with the ‘usurper-tyrant’ of the commercial theatres of London, and how the usurpation plot emerges as one of the central preoccupations of early modern drama. We caught up with Doyeeta Majumder to discuss this recent publication.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Tyranny and Usurpation and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

I was quite fascinated by early modern literature and culture all through my years as an undergrad and master’s student at Jadavpur University, primarily because we had the amazing good fortune of being taught by the very best, including Sukanta Chaudhuri, Supriya Chaudhuri, Swapan Chakravarti, Amlan Das Gupta, and Paromita Chakravarti. I enrolled in a number of specialized optional courses on early modern drama, started learning Latin informally with Professor Das Gupta, then Italian at the School of Languages, JU. The immediate ‘trigger’ was a master’s course on Renaissance Political Thought, taught by Professor Das Gupta, where we read a huge body of material starting from Defensor Pacis to Leviathan. Right after this, Professor Chaudhuri offered me the opportunity of translating Machiavelli’s Il Principe from Italian to Bengali, as part of a collaboration between our department and University of Naples. Thus Machiavelli occupied my mindspace for nearly a whole year, at the end of which, I knew I had something to say about the ‘new prince’ in early modern drama. Finally, when I joined the department of English at the University of St Andrews as doctoral student, my supervisor, Lorna Hutson, helped to focus my ideas with coherence and consistency.

Your book has a wide coverage of dramatic texts, focusing on both Scottish and English texts and historical contexts. Could you tell us more about one of the plays which particularly stands out to you as a key example in your work?

Both David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre (Scottish) and Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc stand out. These plays are not read very widely anymore (if they ever were), so the ways in which they mark a crucial turning point in the political fate of the two nations, and use startling dramaturgical innovations, came as a bit of a surprise to me. Gorboduc is the first Senecan tragedy on the English stage, and as I have noted in my book it was also the first play to depict regicide and an armed uprising, while Ane Satyre provides a detailed account of the proceedings of the Scottish parliament, complete with a charter of acts and bills passed at the end of it. I had read Gorboduc before with cursory interest, Ane Satyre was a total revelation, and it was quite thrilling to make these discoveries.

The book’s cover image is very striking – could you tell us more about the artwork and why you chose it as the cover of your book?

The book focuses on the idea of dynastic legitimacy and the spectre of usurpation that threatens to destabilize it. Goya’s Saturn is an iconic painting which depicts Saturn devouring one of his children because it had been prophesied that he would be overthrown (i.e. have his throne usurped) by one of his children, just as he had done to his father, Caelus. The figure of Saturn is the very embodiment of the usurper-tyrant who is the protagonist of my book. Last summer I had the opportunity to see the physical painting at Prado, and it had been stuck in my head since then so I was very glad that Liverpool University Press managed to get the requisite permissions.

How does this volume pave the way for future research in this area?

The scope of this book begins and ends with the reign of the Tudors. The epilogue touches upon Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, indicating that further/similar work can be undertaken in the field of Jacobean or even Carolingian drama. The book also brings Scottish texts and contexts in dialogue with English ones, and tries to locate the main currents of English political thought within the broader framework of continental political thought. This might open up possibilities for more work along these lines– more books or articles which analyse literary and cultural developments in England within the context of archipelagic and continental European writings. I have used twentieth century political theory as a framework to make sense of the sixteenth-century texts, and while a lot of valuable work has been done in this direction–works of scholars such as Victoria Kahn, Julia Lupton, Graham Hammill, and so on — I think there is more to be said.

What are you going to be working on next?

I’ve started writing a couple of pieces on early modern equity and sovereign exception. Part of this work was presented at the Crossroads of Knowledge conference at Cambridge last year. Some more work on equity, natural law, and the Inns of Courts will (hopefully) be presented at King’s College this year. I have received valuable feedback on this work from peers in the discipline. I’m hoping this work can be expanded and thematically organized in the shape of another monograph.

For more information on Tyranny and Usurpation, please visit our website.


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An introduction to: The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual by General Editor John D. Morgenstern

In 1975, a contributor to the short-lived T. S. Eliot Review characterized the state of Eliot scholarship as an incomplete mosaic, with “the primary materials for research [. . .] either in jumbled disarray or missing entirely.” While a glut of memoirs flooded the literary marketplace, serious scholars lacked the “fundamental research tools” to fill in the gaps in the fragmentary tableau: “No Complete Works of Eliot [. . .] no critical edition of Eliot’s poems (save The Waste Land Facsimile) [. . .] and no Complete Letters of Eliot” had appeared in the decade following the poet’s death. Nearly a half-century later, comprehensive, award-winning critical editions of his letters, poetry, and prose have at last permitted scholars to see Eliot whole.

These landmark editions are the fruit of the T. S. Eliot Editorial Project, a multi-year endeavor launched a decade ago at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of an international team of editors, scholars now have access to nearly the full record of Eliot’s writing life, with the balance scheduled for publication over the next several years. As of January 2019, the editorial project had published more than 7,600 pages of brilliantly annotated letters in eight volumes supplemented by an online gallery; nearly 5,500 pages from Eliot’s prolific prose writings in six monumental volumes featuring more than 700 previously uncollected items; and two richly contextualized volumes of his complete poetry, including 200 poems not featured in Faber’s original Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909–1962. More is on the way: two additional volumes of prose; perhaps a dozen volumes of correspondence, including 1,131 letters to his paramour Emily Hale still under seal in Princeton’s archives; and a critical edition of Eliot’s complete plays are currently underway. The editions have prompted a renewed appreciation for Eliot as a man of his time, as a discerning critic of both literature and of the twentieth century, and as a poet whose art and ideas cross cultural, media, and linguistic barriers.


Cover of Poetry  (June 1915), courtesy of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

Scholars have now embarked on the decades-long task of coming to terms with more than a million words previously inaccessible or unattributed to Eliot. The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual provides a venue for this ongoing critical reassessment, and essays in the first two volumes draw on newly available primary materials to revise longstanding critical narratives, to place Eliot’s work in fuller historical contexts, and to ensure his enduring presence in the new modernist studies.

Volume 2 of the Annual, recently published by Clemson University Press in association with Liverpool University Press, celebrates the T. S. Eliot Editorial Project in a cluster of essays contributed by esteemed members of the editorial team: Jewel Spears Brooker (coeditor of volumes 1 and 8 of the Complete Prose), Anthony Cuda (coeditor of volume 2 of the Complete Prose), Jayme Stayer (coeditor of volume 5 of the Complete Prose), David E. Chinitz (coeditor of volume 6 of the Complete Prose), and John Haffenden (general editor of the Letters). Each editor recounts a particular challenge or unique discovery from their editorial experience, providing a small sense of the enormity of their task and of the tremendous implications their work has for our understanding of the twentieth century’s preeminent poet and critic.


The cover of the first edition of Prufrock

Volume 2 also marks the centenary of Eliot’s first poetry collection, Prufrock and Other Observations. The volume opens with articles that provide new contexts or entry points for the poems collected in Prufrock. The first essay in volume 2, Frances Dickey and Bradford Barnhardt’s “My Madness Singing”: The Specter of Syphilis in Prufrock and Other Observations,” provides both. When Faber released the revised first volume of Eliot’s correspondence in 2009, it included a letter drafted by his father, Henry Ware Eliot, Sr., which reaffirmed for early reviewers the family’s puritanism as a source of the sexual dysfunction commonly ascribed to Prufrock (and to the poet ventriloquizing behind him): Henry Ware, Sr. expressed his “hope that a cure for Syphilis will never be discovered,” calling the virus “God’s punishment for nastiness.” Dickey and Barnhardt place this remark, and much of Eliot’s first collection, in the context of a transatlantic public-health campaign that aspired to contain the spread of venereal disease by instilling fear in young men. Allusions in Prufrock to pox marks, madness, and even hair loss (all symptoms of venereal disease) illustrate the deep mark this fear campaign left on the young poet and provide a common context between Eliot’s early verses and other literary responses to the public campaign, including Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Elisabeth Däumer (“Prufrock’s Gestures”), Rachel Trousdale (“The Right to Smile: Humor and Empathy in Prufrock and Other Observations”), and Christopher McVey (“T. S. Eliot, Modernism, and Boredom”) likewise offer previously overlooked contexts and fresh readings of these early poems. Together, these essays demonstrate the potential for Prufrock to delight and surprise even the most learned readers well into its second century in print.

For the full list of contributions to volume 2 of The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, please visit our website. To learn more about the Annual or to submit your work for consideration in a forthcoming volume, please visit the Annual online.


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From catechisms to Voltaire: Religious tradition and change in eighteenth-century novels

Alicia C. Montoya explores how eighteenth-century readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire in her chapter of Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français (edited by Isabelle Tremblay), the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Scholars of the Enlightenment have tended – like intellectual historians generally – to stress the movement’s newness, rather than its continuities with the past. Yet these continuities are many, and none are so little explored, perhaps (pace Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), as religious continuities, with religion conceived not in theological terms, but as an everyday praxis of rituals, prayers, and religious reading.


Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français edited by Isabelle Tremblay is the January 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

No doubt some of the problem lies in essentialist concepts of ‘religious tradition’. In fact, traditions change over time, in response to specific historical configurations. One of the insights of Philippe Martin’s too-little-noticed Une religion des livres (1640 – 1850) is that popular devotional titles, such as catechisms and prayer books, were continually adapted and rewritten throughout the eighteenth century, both to suit the needs of successive generations and local dioceses.[1] In terms of print runs, these remained the best-selling titles of the period, right until the end of the century. On the eve of the French revolution, from 1777 to 1789, Jacques Coret’s Ange conducteur (1681) enjoyed a print run of 125,400 copies.[2] In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683).[3] But how did these titles relate to the better-known literary productions of the Enlightenment? Were they read by different groups of readers, or was there some overlap? And if there was overlap, which titles shared shelf space with which other titles? Would a catechism sit comfortably on a nightstand next to Voltaire’s latest polemic? And if not, how did readers actually move from reading a religious catechism to reading a work by Voltaire?

One way to explore this question is to focus on private libraries and their holdings, as we do in a bibliometric project that will run until 2021, MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665 – 1830). By studying both collocations – which titles are most often found in libraries next to one another – as well as specific title frequencies, this project hopes to shed light on titles that might have served as intellectual bridges between a traditional, religious worldview, and the new ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

But bibliometrics can only take us so far, and to really understand the impact of books on intellectual change, we need to study their contents. So another way to find out how readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire is to look more closely at the formal and discursive structures of these works. Catechisms are defined formally, for example, by their question-answer format. Yet religious books were not the only ones to use this structure. The catechism genre is referenced in publications ranging from Fleury’s Catéchisme to Voltaire’s Catéchisme de l’honnête homme (1764), or the revolutionary Catéchisme historique par une bonne citoyenne (c. 1790). A philosophe’s or a revolutionary’s use of the catechism format payed tribute to Christian tradition, even while explicitly distancing itself from it. At what point, then, did the religious reference no longer impact the reception of these texts, or ‘disappear’, to be replaced with ideas clearly aligned with the new?

Among the works that most insistently drew on religious formats were religiously-inspired pedagogical texts. Often female-authored, these titles re-used thematic elements and discursive structures associated with a Catholic worldview, joining them to Enlightenment pedagogical ideals. Texts such as Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Education complète (1753), for example, used the catechism’s question-answer format to teach its young readers the history of the world, from the biblical Flood to the present day. In her best-selling Magasin des enfants (1756), to inculcate in her readers the elements of history, geography, and the natural sciences, Beaumont used religious number symbolism, structuring her narrative into seven days of dialogue between seven fictional pupils, punctuated by twelve fairy tales underlining specific moral points. In the pupils’ allegorical names, the medieval system of the seven vices and virtues was still recognizable. At the end of the century, Marie-Françoise Loquet adopted the system of vices and virtues in her Voyage de Sophie et d’Eulalie au palais du vrai Bonheur (1781), detailing a succession of encounters between the protagonists and personifications of the vices and virtues, in a quest to reach the abodes of Divine Charity and True Happiness.


Portrait of Madame de Genlis by
Adelaide Labille-Guiard (public domain, courtesy of LA County Museum of Art)

But other pedagogical authors like Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, while paying lip service to religious beliefs, de facto made little use of them. In her collection of tales Veillées du château (1782), Genlis foregrounded the ‘the order in which I needed to present [my ideas] to gradually enlighten the spirit and elevate the soul’. But the content of her tales was so deeply indebted to the new scientific ideas of her age that their religious dimension disappeared from view. In one of the volume’s tales, ‘Alphonse et Dalinde’, Genlis took the reader on a dizzying tour of the world, describing a series of natural and man-made wonders, ranging from earthquakes, meteorites, automata, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and much more. So amazing are all these wonders that the author forgets, finally, to point out the divine hand at work in them. The tale ends up reading as a eulogy of modern science and rationality, in a world that no longer requires divine intervention.

So what remained in the writings of both religiously-inspired pedagogical authors and philosophes, increasingly, were merely the formal and discursive structures of traditional religious genres, now emptied of their religious content. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, the works of Madame de Genlis and of Voltaire do, in fact, surprisingly often find themselves close neighbours on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers, attesting to the conceptual bridge that pedagogical works such as Genlis’s provided between two worldviews that, at first sight, might appear difficult to reconcile.

– Alicia C. Montoya (Radboud University)


[1] Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640 – 1850) (Paris, 2003).

[2] Simon Burrows, ‘Charmet and the book police: Clandestinity, illegality and popular reading in late Ancien Régime France’, French History and Civilization vol. 6 (2015), p. 34 – 55 (48).

[3] Julia Dominique, ‘Livres de classe et usages pédagogiques’, in Histoire de l’édition française, vol. 2: Le livre triumphant 1660 – 1830, éd. Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier (Paris, 1990), p. 615 – 56 (629).

Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

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Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Denys Van Renen explores the relationship between nature and “new science” in his latest book, the first to be published under the new partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press.

Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the “care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.” Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).  Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life.  But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the “rise” of large-scale processes—the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies—obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like “The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight.”  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the “New Science,” which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen


Denys Van Renen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.



[1] Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).
Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[2] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.


Nature and the new science in England, 1665 – 1726 is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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