A Conference on Rethinking Master Narratives

by John Kucich

On Friday March 7, 2008, over 100 faculty and graduate students from Rutgers University, as well as from Columbia University, Princeton University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and other nearby schools gathered at Alexander Library for the Making History: Rethinking Master Narratives Conference. The conference spotlighted the efforts of distinguished scholars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history and literature to reimagine the place of master narratives in their work. Master narratives are the grand stories or “myths” people tell in order to organize their perceptions of everyday reality, and to drive off the contradictions that ordinary life inevitably poses to their most cherished beliefs.

The conference’s four plenary speakers are among the leading figures in their fields: Nancy Armstrong, the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Brown University, and a specialist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction; Dror Wahrman, the Ruth N. Halls Professor of History at Indiana University, and an expert on eighteenth century history; Catherine Hall, a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century class and sexual politics from University College London; and Suvir Kaul, a scholar of eighteenth century literature and colonial culture at the University of Pennsylvania.

These four scholars analyzed grand national stories and the belief systems they anchor. But they also turned a skeptical eye on their own tendency to reject master narratives as false or lacking in interpretive power. Their papers moved energetically across a wide range of topics: Darwin’s theories of individual and collective development and their surprising affinity with gothic narrative; the tendency of eighteenth century intellectuals in law, science, finance, politics, and religion to situate individuals within complex providential systems; the invention of the basic themes of British imperialism in the early nineteenth century; and persistent histories of British cultural identity that assume it rose entirely from within, as the manifestation of national character traits and progressive social forces, rather than being acted upon and shaped by global forces that Britons often could not control or comprehend.

The speakers and their audience engaged in a dynamic exchange of perspectives over both particular issues and general theoretical principles. The Making History Conference provided a rare opportunity for scholars from different disciplines and different periods of study to discuss vitally important common issues.