My first session today was clearly for fun: Historians Read Detective Fiction. Well, I meant it be scholarly – it said it was about the “Golden Age” of detective stories, which I naturally assumed was the late 19th century. But no! It’s the interwar years, apparently.
Since no one “had technology” (as the chair put it) we listened to short papers without visuals, which was fine. Although the first paper by Michael Saler was in the program as being about Dorothy L. Sayers, it was actually about Raymond Chandler, and the theme seemed to be this: we see post-Great War detective stories as being based in modernist rationality, but actually there is a great deal of irrationality about them, and an invocation of magic in the use of words, particularly Chandler’s more bizarre juxtapositions (“as eyebrowless as a French roll”). Such writing was an attempt to “re-enchant” modernity through language.
Elizabeth Prevost‘s paper on Agatha Christie in Southern Africa was about a book I haven’t read, The Man in the Brown Suit. Christie wrote it after returning from her only trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where she and her husband had witnessed African landscapes and the revolt of white workers against the De Beers mining company. Her book, with an independent heroine who solves the mystery, was cast as the reclaiming of female independence through imperial travel.
Laura E. Nym Mayhall’s The Struggle for Meaning: The Press in Golden Age Detective Fiction examined the role of the press as a character in the novels, noting connections at the time between journalism and crime fiction. But of greater importance was the role of aristocrats in both (I must remember in my own work that which I think is the thesis is likely just the point of lesser and more specific importance). With the decline of the upper class as a political power after the Great War, aristocrats were cast instead as celebrities. Newspapers and magazines reported on their marriages, divorces, and public disgraces, and people ate it up. The main example in detective fiction, of course, was Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat traumatized by the war but setting things right (with the press a frequent character). Her focus on newspapers within the genre was a great way to narrow what could have been a huge subject.
Commentary on the three papers included the use of travel narratives to pad a book, the inappropriateness of Christie’s European but nativized “little brown baby” at the end of the book, and a contention that the lines between genres mustn’t be ignored. A more interesting point was that it’s possible that the idea of entropy, a “discourse of degeneration”, is likely more important than any artificial difference between modern and anti-modern. That makes sense to me as fitting with the post-war malaise.
Historian Peter Stansky, who attended the session, was delighted that such literary examinations were being done by historians, noting with sadness that despite the moniker British Studies, few literary scholars attend. There was some discussion about whether what these scholars were doing was considered “history” given the literary focus, and audience members with experience did comment that some historical journals would not accept such topics.
Since there were no 19th century sessions on the menu, I indulged myself in Doing British Studies in the Age of Brexit and Trump, an examination of what the hell we’re supposed to do now. Having been in the UK for the Brexit vote, and here in the US for the Trump vote, and having predicted the results of both, I feel a connection. While there were no solutions, historians clearly felt a responsibility for holding on to Enlightenment rationality, and participating in civic life. There was also serious concern about university administrators and lack of defense of academic freedom. The “Trump effect” was felt by university scholars in England, Canadians trying to recruit emigrating talent, and American progressives. While there was some discussion about whether 2016 was the start of a new epoch, the most useful advice was the call for historians to use their skills to keep pushing truth.
The lunchtime (burgers!) paper was Yasmin Khan on The British Departure and South Asia’s Partition of 1847. Its focus, like many of the revised histories of the British empire, blamed Britain for harm, this time in its inaction. The violence in South Asia following independence has apparently been considered just an India issue, since the British had left (or were leaving). It was, after all, Indian-Indian violence. The British government elites were divided about leaving, and used the possibility of violence as a justification for both staying (to mitigate it) and leaving. The British military was ordered to protect British and Europeans only. Brits who returned to the UK felt they were powerless to help, especially in the Punjab. Government inquiries were either not called for, or were dropped. If the narrative of Indian imperialism was the story of a civilizing mission, the violence on partition seemed to show its failure, which may be why Britain has refused to own partition as part of British history.
I’ve learned (and this talk was an example) that there is much emphasis these days on revising approaches to transAtlantic slavery and to the British Empire. Luckily, the examinations of both topics at this conference were complex and informed by advanced scholarship, rather than pushed by agendas of retribution or self-righteousness. The other concern I’ve had in recent years, in both American and British historiography, has been the acceptance of emotions as a valid area of historical inquiry. But here, the papers that worked with emotion were all examining it from an objective point of view (Pollock’s paper from yesterday on repentance is a good example). The quality of all the papers I’ve seen here is incredibly high, which was noted at the reception tonight by visiting scholars. And with the reception held at the Denver Art Museum, who could complain?