English professor brings 19th-century work into 21st-century life

Dewey Hall, a Cal Poly Pomona English professor, co-edited a book this spring highlighting 19th-century female writers and their fascinations with the natural world. The book, titled “Gendered Ecologies: New Materialist Interpretations of Women Writers in the Long Nineteenth Century,” illustrates instances where women writers expressed interest in scientific elements.

English Professor Dewey Hall co-edit a book highlight female writers from the 19th century. (Courtesy of Dewey Hall)

His 17 years of experience teaching courses on 18th-century enlightenment, ecocriticism and 19th-century Britishromantic and Victorian writers at CPP assisted him during the editing and researching process.

Hall, along with co-editor and Union College professor Jill Marie Murphy, framed the book around the theory of new materialism. In short, this theory suggests that human beings, along with other objects in nature, can be reduced down to an atom. Accompanying the theory is the idea of a transcorporeal exchange of matter that occurs when two beings interact. Commonly referred to as “chemistry,” theorists suggest it is an interaction of molecules that result in an energy causing attraction.

With this theory in mind, the book’s editors examine literary works from both British and American traditions. Its defining characteristic, however, is the sole emphasis on women writers of the 19th century.

Though male writers of the era sparked Hall’s initial interest, in what he describes as “a natural progression,” he began studying women’s literary works after realizing their unique perspective on the subject. Rather than reading 19th-century novels in search of traditional metaphors and symbolism, the authors and editors read the novels with a different perspective in mind.

“Many women weren’t provided with opportunities to engage in dialogue with one another or men about theirobservations of natural phenomena,” Hall said. As a result, their observations of the natural world became an important element in their novels.

Women writers, such as Charlotte Brontë, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Emily Brontë, are featured in the book to highlight their fascinations with science within their field of expertise, according to Hall.

“The point I’m trying to make is that there are some people in literature who are interested in science, and there are people in science who are interested in literature. The gap is not as wide as we think,” Hall said.

This book is the first that Hall has co-edited, with his other work consisting of a co-authored publication and a monograph. He completed the book in three years, beginning in 2017, before its spring release.

Hall also hopes that this work will spur further dialogue within this area of study.

“We want to try to be consistent with all these writings to make a contribution to the field and to be a part of this larger argument and discussion,” Hall said.

Hall’s work aims to bridge two distinct areas of study — science and literature and the gap between men and women. He adds, “I think that women have very important observations about the natural world and that these observations are to be carefully considered rather than being dismissed.”

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