Visiting Assistant Professor of History is Alice Kelly’s official title, but her well-stocked bookshelf proves that she is also a literature expert. The Argus sat down with Kelly to talk about Edith Wharton, the First World War, and tea.
The Argus: What have you been reading?
Alice Kelly: I’ve been reading a lot of books related to [my] course, “Notes from a Small Island: Modern British History, 1700-Present.” I’m familiar with all those texts, but I’ve been re-reading them, and thinking about them in light of the themes we are discussing that particular week.
So, in the past month, I’ve read people like Linda Colley, some historians of empire like Niall Ferguson, and others. This particular week, we’ve been reading French Revolutionary writings: Burke, Paine, and Wollstonecraft. I’ve also been looking forward to later in the semester, so I’ve been reading some E.P. Thompson, some David Cannadine. [I’ve also been] thinking again about “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens.
A: What do you read for pure pleasure?
AK: I’ve actually just re-read “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton. It’s just a fascinating depiction of New York society in the Gilded Era. I’m reading that because I’m working on a new edition of Edith Wharton’s war writings, a particular text called “Fighting France.” It’s a series of her articles about her war reportage in France where she goes to the frontlines in 1914 and 1915. Very usual—not many people know that Edith Wharton did that.
Later on, she goes to write “The Age of Innocence,” so I was re-reading it thinking, “Can we can see any traces of the [First World] War in the novel, or has she has completely erased it?”
I’m also reading a lot about American propaganda and the history of propaganda in American magazines. All [of this is] working toward that new edition, which is coming out in November 2015. Which is nice because I can read novels for pleasure and say that they still count as work!
A: I found out that you did research on [the topic] “Grief at a Distance: Representations of Death and Memorialization in First World War Writing By Women 1914-1939.” What drew you to that particular time period and that particular subject?
AK: I remember reading a number of the 1920 novels, things like “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises” while at school and thinking about the traces of the war and being fascinated by the ways the war comes up in those Jazz Age novels.
That’s how I slowly became more fascinated with the First World War. As you’ve noted, my particular subject is the way the war affected people, the ways people thought about death, and the new patterns of commemoration that came up.
I focus on how did people imagine death when the bodies weren’t returned home. In the British case, the bodies didn’t come home after 1916. So, how did you come to terms with something when you have nothing to mourn over? And that makes the subject matter incredibly depressing and morbid. Lots of people would cry over this. I certainly did.
Some people say to me, “How do you work on such depressing stuff?” and you think about the ways people suffered, you think about death, and the stories of how people died. But it is also about how people came together and community building and how people did cope in times of absolute national crisis.
A: Jumping off of that, what did you think of the events for the centenary this summer?
AK: What’s nice is my topic is absolutely everywhere now. I was back in home during the summer and every news story, every TV show had some reference to the war. And one thing we did in England was the Lights Out campaign, which was very moving. Everyone did it. And there’s been a lot of debate as to how we commemorate the centenary. Do we glorify it? Are people in danger of glorifying it? Do we treat it as a terrible waste of lives? Does that then undo the hard work, the suffering that happened in that war? It brings up all these questions as to how do we tell war. And that was one particular event where [the] nation came together in unity and mourned something that happened a long time ago.
A: More broadly, you are a professor of literature and history. Obviously the two subjects lend well to each other, but was there a particular book, professor, or even experience that personally made you consider or want to study both?
AK: I think the disciplinary boundaries have been in some sense breaking down. We see a lot of centers for interdisciplinary studies at schools such as Cambridge, Yale, and Wesleyan. And I’m finding increasingly that disciplines mutually illuminate each other. We don’t have to work in isolation. And we can draw on the strengths of different disciplines where they are required and where they complement what we are doing.
So, at one point we might privilege the historical narrative and think about something from a historical perspective, and at another point think how is that represented, and presented aesthetically. So, we may turn to a memoir to back up what we are reading in history.
I think those two things work very well together. I think their boundaries are porous. I actually think a lot of people work within different disciplines without thinking about it.
A: Are you working on anything now? If so, would you mind sharing what it is and what it is about?
AK: I work on the literary and the cultural history of the First World War. My specific interest is death and commemoration and how that was affected by the war. So, my project currently is to trace that and the ways it changed the ways people thought about death and the ways it was represented in literature and art. It’s a broad-ranged interdisciplinary project.
I take my starting point from Sigmund Freud’s essay, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” And, I actually do a lot with material culture, so I will be incorporating things like nurse’s scrapbooks and the ways they commemorated the dead in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.
A: Finally, how do you take your tea?
AK: I put my milk in first, as anyone civilized should do.