Karen Newman


On her book Essaying Shakespeare

Cover Interview of August 24, 2009

The wide angle

At Berkeley where I did my graduate work in comparative literature in the 1970s, there were no courses on women, or race, or ethnicity.  No one read women writers much at all.  Gender, which is the social construction of sexual difference, was not yet even considered a category of analysis, much less so ubiquitous a term that it is now the box we check on forms to indicate our biological “sex.”

At Berkeley there was, however, a “Women’s Caucus,” a cross between what was then known as a “consciousness raising group” and an activist political organization working to leverage curricular change.  After some years of agitation – this was, after all, Berkeley in the early seventies: the battle over People’s Park took place in the summer of 1969, and much of what we remember as Berkeley in the sixties was actually the decade from 1964–1974 – the Caucus was funded to teach one course annually.  We “elected” each year’s instructor.

As hard as it may now seem to imagine in this age of identity politics, teaching a “Renaissance” course taking into account gender or race or even economics, seemed impossible.  So when it was my turn, I taught a course I devised called the “Female Protagonist and the Nineteenth-Century Novel.”  That course prompted one of my earliest published essays, “Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending.”

The course, and the essay, sought to consider questions both of representation and the failures of representation. What could be represented in print?  Were there silences we could plumb by reading attentively?  I tried to address the claim, often made by feminist criticism of that time, that the marriages ending Austen’s novels, or Shakespeare’s comedies, represented a “falling off,” a dwindling of the female protagonist into a wife.

With “identity politics” much in the news today around the appointment of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, this autobiographical anecdote highlights the process of dis-identification which characterized my earliest relation to literary criticism and to the study of gender.  Retrospectively it has always seemed significant that my early teaching and scholarship were outside my chosen field—Shakespeare and Renaissance studies.

I went on to teach that Berkeley course in my first year as an assistant professor at Brown.  It still seemed inconceivable to teach a Renaissance course concerned with women.  But it was the heyday of feminism and feminist criticism, and my new department was eager to offer such a course.  As the only woman in the department, I was asked what I might propose.  Apparently, being a woman was qualification enough, no matter the field.  So I began doing feminist criticism, which characterized some of my earliest work, by way of a chiasmatic process of both identification and dis-identification (a term from rhetoric, chiasmus means reversal in two otherwise parallel phrases, as in Falstaff’s line “I would my means were greater and my waist slenderer”).

Meanwhile what are called the human sciences, particularly via the work of Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault, had incited the so-called new historicism, a reaction against formalist approaches to literature.  In my field, instead of the topical studies, historical context, and history of ideas that had characterized the literary history of earlier generations, “new historicism” studied ideology and relations of power by “reading” texts of all sorts – popular and elite, “historical” and “literary.”  An eclectic variety of reading methods were used – associated with the New Criticism, with the great romance philologists Auerbach and Spitzer, and occasionally, with the French school of Derrida and Paul de Man.

Gender didn’t disappear from the critical scene.  Instead, gender has been “mainstreamed” as other categories of difference have gained traction in literary studies.

Today my work engages with a new set of problems and issues: the globalization of culture and cultural translation.