Category Archives: Literary Studies

David Whitley on The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation

Posted by Emily Ferro, Marketing Coordinator

The Idea of Nature in Disney AnimationThe Idea of Nature in Disney Animation by David Whitley has been chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our Literary Studies list. The following is a guest blog post by the author, reflecting on his motivations for publishing his book and the experiences he’s had with it since its publication.

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I was delighted to be asked by Ashgate to contribute a few reflections on The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, even though – as may soon become apparent in this piece – I may well be the world’s most inexperienced blogger. There’s a pressure to keep moving forward all the time in academic life – producing new perspectives and keeping up with developments in your area – so that the opportunity to reflect back on a book that occupied a lot of time and energy over a significant period in my life (and even changed my outlook on many things in the end) is really welcome.

So – looking back, what was it all about? The idea behind the book was really quite simple – in some ways simple-minded, even. Like many other people in our uncertain times, I’d become preoccupied with trying to understand how our relationship to the natural world was changing and what kinds of positive response we might be able to make to what was widely viewed as an impending environmental crisis. As an academic whose field was literary and film studies, with a particular orientation towards children’s literature, I was especially interested in the kinds of stories and images we produce to make sense of our complex relationship to nature. Watching Disney films with my own kids over a number of years, I realized (this is perhaps what Simpson’s argot would describe as a ‘Doh!’ moment) that these movies had been centrally preoccupied with animals and nature from the time Disney started making feature length animations in 1937. Millions of children all over the world watched these movies repeatedly as they were growing up. So the Disney tradition constituted one of the most significant cultural repositories of imagery and stories connecting children to nature in the world. A great project for a book, in other words, trying to make sense of this connection and the different ways it had been developed in the history of Disney’s filmmaking.

So that was the simple bit – and, to be honest, when I thought about it, I was amazed no one had written a book-length study on such an important topic from this perspective before. The complication lay in that word ‘connecting’ children to the natural world, though. Most of the academic writing that existed on this topic (which was surprisingly limited, actually – most critics choosing to take Disney to task on issues of race and gender, rather than environment) critiqued the films on the premise that their effect on children was to disconnect them from, rather than connect them to, the natural world. The images of nature that Disney offered were considered to be sanitized, sentimental and cute, peddling a false and potentially damaging view of nature to vulnerable young minds.

There was a certain stringency and deconstructive force in adopting this kind of stance, but, the more I thought about it, the more one-sided this also seemed to be. Where Disney criticism focused on images of nature it tended either to read through the animals figured in the films immediately – seeing them as thinly veiled ciphers for human types that embodied culturally conservative agendas – or to upbraid the filmmakers for making the animals too cute and anthropomorphic. This seemed to me to be only half the story, though. So I came up with an alternative kind of strategy for reading the films, which I suppose you could say is close to what the anthropologists call ‘thick description’. In other words I tried to take the surface detail seriously – without being naïve about the distinctive lens through which nature was seen in the movies – taking account of the degree to which the animals retained elements of their ‘animalness’ in the films, and teasing out the implications of this in relation to a wider range of ideas about the environment that seemed relevant. What I hoped to do was to open up the films in some fresh ways and to see what their potential might be for speaking to some of the most important issues facing us in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly as seen from perspectives to which a child audience could relate.

I don’t know how successful this was but the first edition of the book got generally appreciative reviews, as well as stirring a degree of skepticism and debate in the media. Ursula Heise, whose important work has both challenged and moved forward my own thinking on the idea of a global environmental imaginary, was kind enough to say that the book had opened up sophisticated ways of thinking about popular animation’s potential, which she was developing further herself. In 2012 Ashgate wanted to publish a paperback edition, and this gave me the opportunity to update it with a new chapter on WALL*E, which I think has significantly extended the scope of the book’s arguments.

What has become apparent to me since the second edition was published is that there are a lot of unexplored perspectives in this area that a number of scholars now seem to be working on. My book focused on images of wild nature in Disney, as a way of cutting a potentially huge topic down to size.  I now have a PhD student who is working very interestingly on images of urban environments in popular animated films. Her work problematizes a number of the issues I was trying to address from a quite different perspective. Consideration of the various ways we are entangled with the natural world in our urban environments is now being explored by cultural geographers and in important strands of new nature writing too, of course.

Quite a few significant Disney films also focus on domesticated animals or pets, as opposed to wild animals. A number of writers have written very insightfully about the problematic role pet animals play in contemporary society and there are some fine analyses of both Disney and Pixar films on this theme in Zoe Jaques’ recent book on children’s literature and the posthuman. Clearly there is an enormous amount of vital new thinking going on currently in the areas of animal studies, theories of place and environment, and ecocriticism more generally. The usefulness of considering these in relation to the Disney-Pixar traditions is that the issues come into focus in the context of narratives that engage and fascinate so many children and young people worldwide. I suspect this will continue to be a richly significant vein for scholars to explore, and I’m pleased to have been able to make a small contribution to the ensuing debates.

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About the Author: David Whitley is Lecturer in English in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, UK.

CFP: Allusion, Indirection, Enigma: Flirting with Early Modern Uncertainty

Posted by Bret Rothstein

Call for papers: Allusion, Indirection, Enigma: Flirting with Early Modern Uncertainty

Renaissance Society of America (Boston, March 31–April 2, 2016) #RSA16

Session organized by Bret Rothstein, Indiana University – Bloomington

Please send an abstract (up to 150 words) and a 300-word vita by May 31, 2015 to brothste@indiana.edu

Augustine may have believed in validity in interpretation, but the history of early modern Europe is thick with texts, objects, and ideas that seem to move in a very different direction. A striking number of images, texts, behaviors, musical scores, buildings, and even naturally-occurring objects seem designed, in a sense, to send the mind in any direction but the supposedly “right” one. (The matter becomes especially interesting with respect to “jokes of nature,” which might speak to a kind of divine mischief.) But why might this be the case? What was the value of getting things – very loosely conceived – wrong? In an attempt to begin answering such questions, this session is dedicated to the study of interpretive challenges, from theatrical productions to mathematical treatises, and from art works to naturally occurring objects. Its purpose is to promote conversation among scholars from across a range of disciplines about the social and cultural value of interpretation’s ugly stepchildren (confusion, misperception, ambivalence, and incomprehension, among others).

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Bret Rothstein teaches in the Department of the History of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is the editor for Ashgate’s Cultures of Play series.

Piotr Spyra speaks about his book The Epistemological Perspective of the Pearl-Poet

Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive

The body of work by the so-called ‘Pearl-Poet’ remains one of the most widely-read and well-known written in Middle English. Existing in a single surviving manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x) and written in the same dialect, internal evidence suggests that all four works were written by the same author, and many scholars have recognised that Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience and Cleanness should be read in relationship with one another. Author Piotr Spyra, in his 2014 book The Epistemological Perspective of the Pearl-Poet, takes this viewpoint a step further by viewing the Pearl texts as one literary unit with a continuous narrative. By applying the epistemological thought of Saint Augustine to the Pearl manuscript, Spyra reveals that the works of the Pearl-Poet, when read together, disclose what it means to be human.

In this video, Spyra reveals a little more about his choice of texts, methodology and insights.

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Achsah Guibbory’s return to John Donne

Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive

It is, Achsah Guibbory says, an exciting time in Donne Studies. In the last decade, a great number of publications focusing on the English poet have materialised, with much critical attention paid to the production of new scholarly editions of Donne for the twenty-first century.

Ashgate has contributed significantly to this influx of contemporary Donne scholarship, notably with the publication of Frances Cruickshank’s Verse and Poetics in George Herbert and John Donne (2010), and Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Donne’s Metempsychosis by Siobhán Collins (2013).

Returning to John DonneThe newest addition to this list is Returning to John Donne (2015), by Achsah Guibbory.  The book includes an original, substantive introduction and new essays on the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, the Songs and Sonnets, and the subject of Donne and toleration. It also showcases Guibbory’s most influential previously published work on Donne, with corrections, updates and scholarly reflections.

Guibbory’s work is and always has been historicist; she aims to locate Donne’s writings within various historical and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, the essays selected for this volume (those that she considers to be her most important) are united by an overarching concern to define what is distinctive and original about Donne. She writes:

‘Donne also feels very present, because his writing is so energetic, so alive, and he writes about what continues to matter: our yearning for love and intimacy, our desire to believe in – and feel connected with – something great and better than ourselves … his writing is intimate and direct, addressing the listening reader in a way that makes you feel he is speaking directly to you.’

Though his death was a full 384 years ago on the 31st March, Donne clearly continues to speak to and resonate with readers today.

Achsah Guibbory is a plenary speaker at the Reconsidering Donne conference in Oxford, 23-24th March 2015, with a paper entitled Not all Donne: The Significance of Donne’s Libertine Poetry. More information about her book Returning to John Donne, including contents and ordering information, is available on the Ashgate website.

New series: North American Literature and the Environment, 1600-1900 – call for proposals

We are seeking proposals for a new book series, North American Literature and the Environment, 1600-1900, edited by Matthew Wynn Sivils

Building on the growing interest in the environmental humanities, this series focuses on pre-1900 American literary culture – the themes, figures, and issues that emerged during this vital period.

Proposals are welcome for monographs and edited collections on nature writing, animal studies, environmental fiction, natural history, print culture, natural theology, ecocritical theory, gender studies, Native American culture, life writing, captivity narratives, slave narratives, maritime accounts, and other topics and approaches associated with the range of cultural production that stretched from Native American oral traditions to the dawn of the twentieth century. We especially encourage interdisciplinary projects, as well as those that take transnational and hemispheric approaches.

For more information on how to submit a book proposal to the series, please contact Ann Donahue, Publisher, Literary Studies.

About the series editorMatthew Wynn Sivils is Associate Professor of English at Iowa State University. A founding editor of the journal Literature in the Early American Republic, he is the author or editor of six books, including American Environmental Fiction, 1782–1847 and an edition of Alexander Posey’s life writing, Lost Creeks: Collected Journals.

Bluestockings and the emergence of organized feminism – a guest post by Deborah Heller

This is a guest post from Deborah Heller, editor of Bluestockings Now!, and Professor of English at Western New Mexico University

International Women’s Day—celebrated annually on March 8—has as its slogan “paint it purple,” harkening back to purple as the official color adopted by the IWD founders more than a century ago. They adopted that color from the British suffragettes, who had used purple to symbolize justice and dignity for women.  Bluestockings Now! The Evolution of a Social Role, helps to propose another color as symbolic for women-powered advancement of women, and women’s advancement of society in general—the color blue.

The name “Bluestocking” was invented in the eighteenth century to signify the intellectually and culturally energized women who frequented the London salons of Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and others. When Elizabeth Vesey urged one salon guest to attend in casual “blue stockings” instead of the white silk stockings of formal attire, the name stuck. Thus “blue stocking,” often clipped to “blue,” came to stand for the informal apparel and egalitarian manners of the Bluestockings. But it signified much more.

Bluestockings Now! is not the first book on the subject of the Bluestockings, but it is a book that sets out to redefine the Bluestockings as a movement rather than a fixed group, describing what that movement was, how it operated as a networked phenomenon, and how it lead, in the middle of the nineteenth century, to the emergence of organized feminism.

This collection of nine essays, newly written by top scholars in the field, accomplishes a number of significant things. It follows the Bluestockings—and what I call “Bluestockingism”—from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth and, indeed, into the twenty-first century. As an illustration of the staying power and versatility of the Bluestocking movement, I introduce a hitherto unknown eighteenth-century Bluestocking, Margaret Middleton, and show how Middleton steered the Bluestocking impulse into the movement for the emancipation of slaves and, eventually, the emancipation of women.

Contributors to the volume agree that Bluestockingism—an emerging new form of women’s social and cultural activism—was born out of a macro-phenomenon commonly called “modernization.” Modernization entailed new forms of social networking that allowed women to transcend the primary groups into which they were born (family, neighborhood, religion) and to form feminocentric groups that eventuated in the feminist concept of “women” as a solidaristic group sharing legal, political, economic, and personal interests in common. Modernization also provided the material basis of improved communication technologies and the social foundation of “cultural production” as viable means of making social change happen. “Make it happen”, by the way, is another official slogan of International Women’s Day 2015. The Bluestockings were the primary impetus behind the evolution of women’s self-consciousness that has resulted in such activities as IWD in our present moment.

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Bluestockings now‘This excellent volume of new research on the Bluestocking phenomenon makes an exciting intervention in the field of eighteenth-century literary studies. The editor has gathered together an impressive range of original essays. The use of contemporary network theory and visual mapping is particularly innovative and thought-provoking.’   Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London, UK