Welcome to the Department of English at Rutgers University

I used to try to interest students in Victorian culture by proving that it resembles our own, despite appearances to the contrary. Now I try to show them that it was even more different than they think.

~John Kucich

 

John KucichThe first of the English departments hires supported by the Mellon Foundations recent million-dollar grant, John Kucich comes from the University of Michigan, where he taught for twenty-seven years. The author of four books and numerous articles, Kucich is one of the worlds eminent specialists on Victorian literature and culture.

The titles of his books indicate something of the focus of his scholarship: Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class, The Power of Lies: Transgression in Victorian Fiction, Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens, and Excess and Restraint in the Novels of Charles Dickens. Professor Kucichs current project considers why Victorian writers on all sides of the political spectrum idealized organic social hierarchy.

Kucich asks tough questions about cultural and literary issues we too often take for granted in thinking about the Victorians. As he explains, I focus on psycho-social dynamics traditionally considered to be characteristic of Victorian cultureso characteristic that no one bothers to think about them anymoreand then ask whats unsatisfactory about the explanations that have always been given for those dynamics. Thus in considering The Power of Lies, he looks at Victorians beliefs that the nations moral and industrial progress was found in earnest veracity, which indeed was a quintessential definition of Englishness, at least in the minds of the English middle class. His recent study, Imperial Masochism, demonstrates the crucial role masochistic fantasies of suffering, self-sacrifice, and painful defeat played in the British understanding of colonization and class identity. Here we discover why Stevenson, Schreiner, Kipling, Conrad, different as they are as novelists, were the writers most instrumental in moving colonialism from the periphery of serious British culture, to its center. Despite their diverse political views, together these authors made imperialism and social class central concerns for the middle class reading public.

Throughout his work, Kucich uses novels as his chief source of evidence. His compelling reasons remind us anew of fictions centrality in forming the ideas and values of middle class Victorians. No other form of writing in Victorian culture so powerfully brought together discourse about history and politics with psychological discourse, he writes. A splendid introduction to his way of approaching cultural questions raised in the Victorian novel is his essay, Intellectual Debate in the Victorian Novel: Religion, Science, and the Professional, included in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Noting how religion and science are the focal points of well-nigh all intellectual debates of the period, Kucich makes us aware how seldom religion is a subject in the pages of Victorian fiction, even as religious concerns saturate the fiction, and religious doubt, in particular, helped to shape the way novels represent scientific ideas themselves. For him, the absence of religious discussion in Victorian novels reveals an intriguing paradox, namely, that contemporary religion and science coincide in their quest for some grounds of consoling belief in either social or moral order. Yet it is also true that the professional intellectual, whether a lawyer or doctor or other member of the educated class, had begun to replace the clergyman as a source of moral counsel and disinterested advice. At the same time the professional secularization of knowledge sometimes made professional authority seem irreverent or even fraudulent.

Kucich teases out such paradoxes in all his writingand leaves his readers freshly alert to the ways that the writing of the period participated in crucial dialogues about the nature of reality, society, and cultural authority. His analyses of the major Victorian novelists begin in listening to their texts, asking questions about the obvious and the metaphorical, about the intentions of plot and story, and about the work of omniscient narrators who are so characteristic a feature of the novels. His thinking is informed by a deep historical understanding and by a profound sense of theoretical formulations, particularly those of Michel Foucault, who charted the ways of disciplinary order in modern states. What all readers take from Kucichs work is a sense of the limitless aspirations and the conceptual limitations of the Victorians, no matter what genre they were working in.

Professor Kucich teaches courses in Victorian fiction and in literary theory at both graduate and undergraduate levels. His presence at Rutgers English ensures that the department, which has long been a premier national center for the study of Victorian literature and culture, will continue to shape the future of this field. As one of his colleagues has said, reading John Kucich is to immerse oneself in the best that has been known and thought by present-day Victorianists.

 


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