Lecturer in Comparative Literature
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Having lived as a child in Latin America in a Swedish-, English-, and Spanish-lspeaking household, I think comparative literature has always been the only possible discipline for me. I studied French and English literature as an undergraduate, took a long detour through fashion and design, and then returned to study comparative literature in my thirties, having acquired a husband and two children.
Seven years, two more children and a dissertation later, I began teaching at Harvard, then deaning, and now here I am at Smith, where I'm dean of the seniors and second-semester juniors and teach a comparative literature. In Imagining Language, we alternate reading pre-20th-century theorists of language with 20th-century writers who are fascinated with the inherent patterns and propulsions of language. The theories of language include Plato's Cratylus, Augustine's On the Teacher, and Rousseau and Herder on the origin of language; the writings that play with language include Zukofsky's translations of Catullus, Alice in Wonderland, May Swenson's spoonerisms, among others. We watch Truffaut's The Wild Child and try to read the artist Xu Bing's Book From the Ground. Students experiment with language themselves by inventing rebuses, portmanteau words, anagrams, spoonerisms and alphabet poems.
I have two main areas of research. First, I study the adventure novel, especially its organization of space and gender roles. Why, despite attempts to write women's adventure stories, does the adventure form seem to be so inherently stable (think Star Wars) and so deeply inimical to the representation of women heroes?
My second area of research is experiments in language of all kinds, from Apollinaire's Calligrammes to May Swenson's Iconographs to concrete poetry to Xu Bing's current project The Book from the Ground, a novel written entirely in pictographs of the kind found in airports. I'm interested in writers and artists whose work attempts to modify our relation to the real by modifying our relation to the written—people who, like Dr. Seuss, go "on beyond zebra."
My book, Romancing the Novel: Adventure from Scott to Sebald, is an exploration of the adventure novel genre in writers such as Walter Scott, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas Pere, in which I argue that this ubiquitous and commonplace plot has generated tensions in writers not usually associated with "boys' books" such as Freud, George Eliot, Ursula Le Guin, Joseph Conrad and W. G. Sebald.