by Kate Flint

David Kurnick

At the 2005 annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association, I ran into a colleague from another university, who was in a state of some rapture. She had just heard, she said, an extraordinarily brilliant presentation from a graduate student about William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, and its relationship to the theater. She was a judge for the best graduate paper delivered at that year’s conference, and although it was early in the proceedings, she said she thought that there could be no doubt for whom she would be voting.

David Kurnick was, indeed, that year’s winner of the prestigious award. Even then, he was already making a name for himself in Victorian studies circles before we were fortunate enough to hire him at Rutgers in 2006—to the envy, it must be said, of the other departments who made him offers the same year that we did. Kurnick took up a postdoctoral fellowship in the Columbia Society of Fellows in 2006–2007, and we were delighted to welcome him to the department in the fall of 2007.

A Harvard University graduate with degrees in American history and literature, Professor Kurnick obtained his PhD from Columbia University for a dissertation entitled “The Vocation of Failure: Frustrated Dramatists and the Novel,” which he is now revising for publication in book form. In this outstanding and original study, Kurnick explores the writing of several novelists whose careers were marked by unrealized theatrical projects: Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry James, and—reaching into the twentieth century—James Joyce. They were the authors of plays, whose projects never saw the light of day because they were censored, unperformed, or, quite simply, unperformable. Yet, although these plays might be considered by some as showing dramatic ineptitude, Professor Kurnick argues that they should not be seen as write-offs, but quite the reverse: their failure can profitably be understood as being intimately linked to novelistic innovation.

Kurnick demonstrates that the lingering presence of the theatrical in the work of these novelists allows them to voice dissatisfaction with the privacy and inwardness that was encouraged by the form of the nineteenth century novel. He contends that evidence of the theatrical permits the expression of a historical malaise in ways that fitted only awkwardly with the direction that fiction was taking at the time. For even if the narrative voices within Victorian fiction often perceive the theatrical as being distinct from the genre of the novel, this was simply not true. Nor should the novels in question be thought of as having in some sense vanquished the theatrical: they feed off it, and they reflect both their authors’ desires to partake in theatrical culture, and their understanding that their readers share many of the same desires.

The concept of the reader is of continuing importance to Professor Kurnick’s scholarship. His recent essay in ELH: English Literary History, entitled “An Erotics of Detachment: Middlemarch and Novel-Reading as Critical Practice,” points to a hypothesis about reading that he intends to explore further. This is the idea that promiscuous desire—whether within the novel, or indeed for the novel as a genre—is, in fact, a wish to achieve a social understanding that is both detached and critical. His interest in reading as a practice is also reflected in a collection of essays that he is co-editing with Rachel Ablow, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, entitled Feeling Victorian Reading, and which is currently under contract with the University of Michigan Press.

Since joining the department, Professor Kurnick has made his presence felt in many important ways. In addition to teaching courses on “Promiscuity and Fidelity in the Novel,” “Victorian Literature and Culture,” and “The Social Imagination of the Nineteenth Century Novel,” he has taught “Queer Theories and Histories.” He has been very much engaged with our co-curricular programming of speakers and events in nineteenth century studies and in gender and sexuality studies. Last year, he was a fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis as part of the yearlong working group on “New Media Literacies, Gutenberg to Google,” and he served on the program committee for the Northeast Victorian Studies Association.

Professor Kurnick’s many interests complement our existing strengths in Victorian and modernist literary studies, in gender and sexuality studies, and in theater and performance studies. His intellectual energy and the originality of his insights make him a wonderful addition to our already distinguished Victorian studies faculty at Rutgers English.