By: Andrew Koch ~Editor-in-Chief~
Each year, Xavier welcomes new faculty members to the university. The Newswire sat down with Dr. Jennifer McFarlane Harris, the newest professor of English at Xavier who will be teaching Black Literature: Double Consciousness in African-American Experience(s) and American Renaissance: 1830-1865 The Historical Novel:
Xavier Newswire: What is your specialty?
Dr. Jennifer McFarlane Harris: I’d say 19th-century American literature, with special emphasis on African-American literatures and women’s literatures. In terms of my research, I work on 19th-century African-American women’s spiritual autobiographies.
And I got interested in that because I’m interested in the idea of eye-voice narratives. I had some pretty fantastic professors at the University of Michigan who made me realize “oh, American lit. can be my space.” And so, once that happened, I started recognizing the really fascinating, almost multi-genre kind of works that spiritual autobiographies are.
XN: What are some of your academic interests?
JMH: I really do like American literature all the way from the very early stuff — 16th, 17th century — through 20th and 21st century American lit., but I really like the 19th century, obviously. Women’s literature as well. But I would say my academic interests are also very much in women’s studies and feminist theory.
XN: What drew you to study American literature?
JMH: I think ultimately I started realizing that I was more interested in the “American experience” than I thought. I think there are sort of flat ideas about what Americans can or should aspire to, (but) I think I had a really transformative experience right at the end of college.
I had a fantastic professor who opened archives to me, in a way. He brought in Thoreau — like, actual written versions that he had been working on in his scholarship. I felt sudden sympathy for Thoreau in a way that I hadn’t before. And I also saw that women were an important part of Transcendentalism, and I was like “Oh! Maybe I’ve been missing a huge part of American literature this whole time.” And also it’s just fun to talk about America, because I’m teaching in the United States, and it’s fun for students to interact with their own culture and their cultural history. It also lets me dip a toe in historian land and be a little bit of a sociologist and be a little bit of a psychologist. I love that you get to taste and sample all these different fields.
XN: What are you currently reading that you’re excited about?
JMH: I’m reading in a scholarly way (but it’s turning into more fun than I thought) Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello”…And that is actually a really great read on its own. Yes it’s scholarly, but it’s quite enjoyable. It’s a delight when you turn the pages of scholarship in the way that you would turn the pages of a novel.
XN: Who are your favorite authors?
JMH: Woo! Emily Brontë — gestures to portrait hanging in office — I like her as a poet and as a novelist. “Wuthering Heights” gets me every time. I really like historical fiction, so when I read for fun, that’s usually what ends up on my desk.
I really like Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian,” and she has a newer book called “The Swan Thieves,” both of which I’ve read a number of times.
Emily Dickinson is possibly my favorite author of all time. I love her poetry. I read it a lot and love teaching it — the beauties of her paradox — that she can hold things in tension, that she can say things like “the brain is just the weight of God,” and I have to sit and think about what that could mean.
I really like it when an author asks me to go deep and doesn’t just let me walk away from a poem.
Slave narratives in general: of course, I could list many, but Harriet Ann Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was an incredibly transformative read for me.And like everyone else, I’ve reread Harry Potter endlessly, so it has to be important.
XN: Any literary role models?
JMH: Dickinson’s number one, no question. I like Whitman a lot, but Dickinson has my heart. I like Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book” and “Caleb’s Crossing” a lot.
I think both Elizabeth Kostova and Geraldine Brooks have a great deal of literary merit — the levels of detail and complexity that I like.
Oh — Faulkner. How could I forget Faulkner? “Absalom, Absalom”: world-changing. Toni Morrison — everything, of course, but especially “Beloved”…it’s a challenging read, but it’s totally worth the brain muscle to get through it.
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