NAVSA Best Book of the Year
Gregory Vargo’s An Underground History of Early Victorian Fiction: Chartism, Radical Print Culture, and the Social Problem Novel is an impeccably researched, beautifully structured study that transforms our understanding of the relationship between Victorian literature and working-class politics.
Drawing on an impressive set of sources and concepts that span periodical history, the history of radicalism and of reform, theater history, genre theory, and narratology, Vargo overturns a paradigm long central to Victorian studies: the idea of a chasm between working-class radicals and middle-class reformers. Challenging the linked projects of establishing a purely working-class literary tradition and demonstrating the deafness of bourgeois authors to working-class voices, Vargo shows that working-class and middle-class writers and thinkers were acutely aware of one another’s visions and that their writings reflect their many “vectors of contact” (116).
The book’s achievements are many and varied. Vargo restores to view Chartist writers such as Thomas Cooper and Ernest Jones. He establishes the literary interest of radical writing, drawing attention to its stylistic innovations and formal experiments, with a focus on problems raised by melodrama and the Bildungsroman. He analyzes how radicals wrote about imperialism, slavery, and marriage, and how reformist authors, including Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, and Elizabeth Gaskell, engaged with the radical press and its visions for addressing the inequalities and ills of industrializing England.
Gregory Vargo is an assistant professor in English at New York University. An Underground History of Early Victorian Fiction is his first book. Current projects include an edited collection (under contract with Manchester UP) of four plays written or performed by members of the Chartist movement and a book-length study about anti-imperialism within working-class political movements from abolition to the Morant Bay rebellion. His essays have appeared in Victorian Studies and Victorian Literature and Culture, and he is co-editor (with Rob Breton) of Chartist Fiction Online, a database that catalogs stories and reviews from thirty-five radical periodicals.
Sarah Allison’s Reductive Reading: A Syntax of Victorian Moralizing is a timely and exciting book that speaks directly to widespread concerns about the nature of the work we do in the humanities. Making good on her claim to bridge the digital humanities and traditional methods of literary scholarship, Allison produces startlingly fresh insights into the defiantly old-fashioned topic of how literary style informs and enacts the moralizing work of Victorian literature.
In her hands, narrowly focused quantitative findings concerning at-first-blush drily technical matters, such as the percentage of sentences in Middlemarch that shift from a narrating past to a universalizing present by means of the pronoun which, or the century-long decline in the use of medial speech tags and Dickens’s resistance to this trend, defamiliarize basic narrative practices of commentary and characterization and motivate broader meditations concerning the ethical work of syntax. But what makes Reductive Reading even more impressive and gives it its broadest purchase is its elaboration and advocacy of reductiveness itself, which Allison defends as an enabling component not only of computational methods but also of all critical arguments, including and especially the most powerful ones.
Sarah Allison is an associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. In addition to Reductive Reading, she is also the co-author of three Stanford Literary Lab pamphlets collected in the volume Canon/Archive: Studies in Quantitative Formalism (n+1 books, 2017). Her work has appeared in Cultural Analytics, ELH, Genre, and VLC, as well as in the New Orleans Review and Public Books. Her second project, Not-Quite Novels of the Long Nineteenth Century, investigates novel-adjacent forms like travel writing, history, and biography.
Daniel Hack is Professor of English at the University of Michigan. He is the author of two books: The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel (Virginia, 2005) and Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature (Princeton, 2017), which was awarded Honorable Mention for the 2018 NAVSA Book Prize. His article “Wild Charges: The Afro-Haitian ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’” published in Victorian Studies, won NAVSA’s Donald Gray Prize in 2012, and “Close Reading at a Distance: the African Americanization of Bleak House,” published in Critical Inquiry, received Honorable Mention for the Gray Prize in 2008. Hack co-edits the journal Victorian Literature and Culture, the “Keywords” issue of which was recently awarded Honorable Mention for Best Special Issue of 2018 by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. He also discovered what is believed to be Wilkie Collins’s first published story, “Volpurno.”
Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Apartment Stories (U California Press, 1999), which won honorable mention for the MLA Scaglione Prize for best book in comparative literature; and Between Women (Princeton, 2007), which won four prizes, including the Albion Prize for the best book in post-1800 British studies, the Perkins Prize for the best contribution to the study of narrative, and a Lambda Literary award. Her most recent book is The Drama of Celebrity (Princeton, 2019). Her many articles include “Surface Reading: An Introduction” and “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention.” The recipient of NEH, ACLS, Guggenheim, and Radcliffe Institute fellowships, Marcus founded and edits Public Books, an online journal of arts and ideas.