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MC: Jed Esty: Anglo-­World Realisms After the Cold War: The Case of Historical Fiction

When May 20, 2015
from 02:00 to 06:00
Where Phil I, Building B, R. 29
Contact Name
Contact Phone (+49) 0641 99 30055
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This master class will proceed in two phases. In the first, we will assess the general problem of contemporary realisms, with particular regard to the global Anglophone novel after 1945. In the second, we will consider the current practice of historical fiction as a subcategory of contemporary realism, and work our way through some of the recent critical discourse surrounding the new historical novel (Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell, e.g.). In both cases, we will be considering how the collapse of the old modernism/postmodernism binaries has made space for new and creative models in the periodization and categorization of Anglophone fiction of the last 75 years.

The question of realism has reemerged in the last five years as vital to readers, writers, and critics of the modern and contemporary novel. Institutional and intellectual shifts have decoupled realism from some of its erstwhile antagonists (romanticism, modernism, the avant-garde) and fellow travelers (reportage, documentary, ethnography). Commentators on the global traffic in literary fiction have begun calling for a neo-realist global canon (Mahfouz, Pramoedya, Adichie) as against the abstraction and stylization of the old Rushdie guard (once understood in postcolonial studies as “historiographic metafiction”). Reality-based genres have, as David Shields argued in Reality Hunger (2010), comprehensively challenged fictional narratives for attention and prestige. Meanwhile, across literary and cultural studies, new methodologies are laying claim to a better, vaster, plainer grip on the real (big data, network theory, empiricist method, surface reading, speculative realism/object orientation).

In this seminar we will plot the historical and metacritical narrative driving the turn to realisms now against an earlier moment in which aesthetic debates over the status of realism (particularly in the novel) disclosed a geopolitical dimension. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cold-War-era American critics (of left and right) tended to repudiate social realism, which was therefore doubly outflanked by a critically-­hailed modernism on the one-hand and a robust mass-cultural industry of romance and genre fiction on the other. Geopolitical rivalry between the US and the USSR certainly conditioned the critical skirmishes over realism as a category during those decades. Is it therefore possible to imagine – and even to historicize from the vantage point of the present – our own realism discourses as indexical of larger tectonic shifts at the far end of the Cold War?

In phase two we will sharpen the conversation by addressing the new historical novel as a special case of contemporary realism. We will consider a limited set of high-profile Anglophone historical novels, perhaps centering the discussion on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Our inquiry will cover recent critical trends in the apprehension and interpretation of new historical fiction as a generic phenomenon of the 21st century. The intellectual frames for that portion of the seminar will derive from two key questions animating literary studies and cultural theory now: 1) the spatial expansion of our scale of analysis (world-systems approaches, world republics of letters, global flows) and 2) the temporal reorganization of our historical methods (post-historicism, deep time, anti-historicism, discontinuous historicism).

In addition to the core readings listed below, I will provide an introductory overview to some other key genealogies and reference points in the discourse of contemporary realism and in the critical tradition of historical novel studies.


  • Esty, Jed and Colleen Lye. “Peripheral Realisms Now.” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (2012).
  • Anderson, Perry. “From Progress to Catastrophe.” London Review of Books 33.15 (2011).
  • Jameson, Fredric. “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” From The Antinomies of Realism. Verso, 2013.

Biographical Note

Jed Esty is Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (Oxford, 2012) and of A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, 2004). With Joe Cleary and Colleen Lye, he coedited a 2012 special issue of MLQ on Peripheral Realisms; with Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Antoinette Burton, and Matti Bunzl, he coedited Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (Duke 2005). He has published essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Victorian Studies, Modernism/Modernity, ELH, ALH, Contemporary Literature, Narrative, Novel, and the Yale Journal of Criticism. Esty is currently at work on two new projects: a short book entitled Declinism, Anglo and American and a longer cultural history entitled Ages of Innocence: Culture and Literature from Pax Britannica to the American Century. Esty has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Illinois.

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