Professor’s Bookshelf: Courtney Weiss Smith
Unless you have an interest in 18th-century British literature, you probably haven’t taken a class with Assistant Professor of English Courtney Weiss Smith. If that’s the case, however, you are missing out. Weiss Smith is currently writing a book and co-editing a collection while also teaching two classes—one course on poetry and the other a section of the required gateway course for the English major. Weiss Smith sat down with The Argus to discuss agricultural poetry, cultural history, and “science-y stuff.”
The Argus: What did you read this summer?
Courtney Weiss Smith: I read all sorts of things this summer. I was working on a chapter for my book, and I was reading this humongous, totally strange poem by Daniel Defoe called “Jure Divino.” It’s against the divine right of kings and asks really big questions about politics and rights, and it goes into history, so it’s this weird, complicated poem that most people don’t quite know what to do with. I spent a lot of time thinking about how that fits into the sort of thing that I’m interested in.
A: Are you doing any free reading right now, despite the work on your book?
CWS: I always am reading something for my book, and I always try to read something to just get my mind out there. I just started [Mary Shelley]’s book “The Last Man,” which is a sort of sci-fi, post-apocalypse book…The New York Times Book Review [is] always on my bed stand.
I’ve been spending mornings reading Georgic poetry. It’s the most interesting and strange genre of poetry that was wildly popular in the 18th century. They’re basically how-to poems about agriculture, so “you go out in the field, do this and then this,” in verse. As the poet explains agricultural instructions, he moralizes on them, makes philosophical digressions, and tells mythological stories. They’re these weird, fascinating grab-bags about agriculture.
It’s interesting to think about why this was so popular, what were the kind of things people wanted to read about. Thousands of lines of rhymed verse about cows and trees—it’s very different than our sense of short, lyrical, emotive poems. I think that just trying to think through the popularity of these poses a really interesting problem.
A: How did you get interested in 18th-century British literature?
CWS: I took a course as an undergraduate that was an early British literature survey course, and that’s where I first met Pope and Blake and some of these other poets who really intrigued me. Based on the excitement of that encounter, I decided to spend my junior year of college overseas. I studied at Oxford, and that’s where I really read through the 18th-century novel. I just loved it, I thought it was interesting and fascinating, and I loved that they were funny and philosophically engaged. I just knew that that’s what I wanted to study.
A: Have you gone back?
CWS: I’ve gone back for conferences and things, but I haven’t been back to Oxford. One of these years I will go! Two summers ago I went to a conference in Scotland, so I spent some time at the British Library because it is just a wealth of riches in those British archives.
A: What do you find most intriguing about your continuing research?
CWS: My book, called “Empiricist Devotions: Scrutinizing Nature in Early Eighteenth Century England,” is about the ways people at the time understood or processed science. The 17th century is what people call the Scientific Revolution—Locke and Newton, the microscope and telescope, those major innovations. What I’m interested in is the way it affected how people looked at the world around them. The ways they wrote out descriptions, or even the ways that they prayed—these things all impact one another.
My book is about how people looked at the world differently after science and the weird ways that [their science] doesn’t work like our science does. People used really scientific modes of attention to the world to understand things about how God wanted them to behave. That’s not usually how our scientists tend to think about things.
A: How far through your book are you?
CWS: I am going. I am almost done with the first manuscript draft, so I’m happy with it. It was my dissertation, and I am revising my dissertation pretty substantially into the book. It’s fun. It’s a long process. I probably have another year or so.
I’m working on another book, an edited collection. We basically asked a bunch of interesting scholars in our field, “How does poetry relate to novels in this moment?” We have such compelling stories about the trajectory of the novel in the 18th century and the trajectory of poetry in the 18th century, so we’re really trying to muddy up these clean tidy stories and think about interesting collisions or collusions between forms.
This is what I find so compelling about the 18th century: that you learn a lot about cultural history, you learn a lot about intellectual history. You almost can’t read the literature without thinking about the relationships between them. I think that makes it exciting to study.
A: Any reflections on your first year at Wesleyan?
CWS: I learned a lot last year: in teaching, talking to my colleagues, and going to different lecture series. I felt like I was taking things in as much as teaching them, and it’s nice when there were all sorts of overlaps. The Center for the Humanities did a program in the fall about fact and artifact and science-y stuff, which fascinates me. It was interesting to see people from all different departments and places reflecting on some of the questions that I’m interested in, in a particular historical time. It’s always nice when you learn something new about a topic just from talking to people.