Mary Poovey Interviewed by Caitlin Zaloom
Caitlin Zaloom (CZ): Your work addresses the relationship between past and present, so let’s start with your particular past and its relationship to your present. Can you tell me about how you got to be a literary scholar? What was your entry point?
Mary Poovey (MP): I grew up in North Carolina in a lower-middle-class family that valued education but didn’t have a lot of it. I saw education both as a vehicle for finding a place in my family and as a way of getting out of my family. I went to Oberlin as an undergraduate, which was, in the 1960s, about as politically and socially far away from conservative North Carolina as you could possibly get, and I had some inspirational undergraduate teachers there, as I had in high school. They encouraged me to continue to study literature, which was really the only thing I was any good at. I could write really well and I liked to read books, so that kind of added up to my talents as a literary scholar. Then I went to graduate school at the University of Virginia. Like North Carolina, a pretty conservative place. I went on to get my first job at Yale, right when the theoretical takeoff, sometimes called the linguistic turn, was occurring. There were people like Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Fredric Jameson, either in my department or attached to my department. Of course, I understood nothing of what they were talking about, and I audited their classes. I got essentially a second graduate degree without having to write any papers. At the same time, I was casting around for a topic for a first book because my dissertation was not salvageable in any form whatsoever.
CZ: What did you write your dissertation on?
MP: I wrote my dissertation on theories of narrative change in Gothic novels at the end of the eighteenth century. The important thing to know about it is that I wrote it in four weeks, after I’d gotten a job at Yale, which occurred before I’d begun my dissertation. They told me I would get $500 more a year if I came with a PhD. So I sat down and wrote a dissertation . . . on the theory that I could do anything. I did it, but it wasn’t very good, and I had to start all over again. It took me a while to find the subject for my first book — which was a semibiographical, semiliterary theoretical treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. The way that trio came about was that I was originally going to write about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, and I went to a dinner party with some Yale colleagues. One of them asked that dreaded question, what’s your book about? I said Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley . . . long silence . . . “Well, you had better put in a writer somebody’s heard of.” At which point Jane Austen raised herself up from the dinner table and announced that she’d be willing to be in the book. Even that work was not really simply literary studies, and my next book, which was then in development, was even less purely literary studies. It dealt with things like medicine and the professionalization of literary writing and Florence Nightingale and the creation of nursing as a profession. I was already moving away from whatever basic literary studies I’d ever done.
CZ: But it sounds like literature was your original inspiration when you were growing up. What were some of the books that inspired you when you were young?
MP: Black Beauty. Anything about horses. Or dogs. My Sister Mike, which was about a girl who played basketball. Oh, and then I got very rapidly into high modernism. Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence. I went to college having read all of Joyce and assuming that I’d be a modernist.
CZ: Those are not books that you’d normally associate with teenage angst. What was appealing to you about high modernism as a teenager?
MP: They were really difficult books, but the language was very beautiful. For me, the combination of Black Beauty and To the Lighthouse was natural because one had lots of plot and the other one had lots of words. It’s hard to explain why I was fascinated with modernism. I think it was part and parcel of my wanting a world that was not my family’s. This was a language that was utterly incomprehensible to them, and therefore it was very attractive to me.
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