October 2, 2023

Return of Thursday Poetry and Prose

What’s new at UMW?  Something old!  This academic year sees the return of a longstanding events series brought to you by the Department of English and Linguistics (with a little help from our friends in Modern Languages and literatures).  Thursday Poetry and Prose invites all members of the university community to attend short 30-minute weekly readings of great literature by various faculty (and sometimes their students).  All you do is show up to Combs 139 at 5 p.m., sit back, relax, and enjoy some literary inspiration and/or respite from the daily grind.

Here’s the Fall lineup:

September 14:     Kate Haffey reads from Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer


September 21:    Chris Foss reads from the poetry of Charlotte Smith


September 28:     Jonathan Levin reads from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers without End


October 05:        Brenta Blevins (& friends) read Banned Books


October 12:        Antonio Barrenechea reads from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


October 19:        Ana Chichester, Brooke Di Lauro, and the students of MDFL 201M: Afro-Caribbean Literature and Culture read Poetry in French and Spanish with English translations


October 26:        Terry Kennedy reads from the poetry of John Keats


November 02:     Gary Richards and the students of ENGL 357: Southern Lit read from As I Lay Dying


November 09:      Marie McAllister reads “First Feminists” (early pro-woman poems)


November 16:                  Marcelo Fajardo-Cárdenas and the students of SPAN 312: Intro to Lit Studies in Spanish, read poems in Spanish and English translation

Foss Presents at The Victorians Institute’s Golden Jubilee Conference

Foss’s Conference Badge

Professor of English Chris Foss presented a paper entitled “‘We are the zanies of sorrow’: Oscar Wilde’s Post-Prison Relationship to Disability” on Saturday, Oct. 15, at The Victorians Institute’s Golden Jubilee Conference in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  In conjunction with the conference theme, Anniversaries and Auguries, Foss’s paper marked the 125th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s release from Reading Gaol upon serving a two-year sentence for crimes of “gross indecency” by exploring Wilde’s relationship to disability in the few years remaining to him.  Most paint this period as merely the pathetic pageant of a broken man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.  What often becomes lost in such a narrative, though, is the extent to which the physical debilitation and psychological distress he endured in prison moved him to reciprocal pity and responsive action in the name of those who have experienced similar difficulties.  Instead of simply wallowing in his own suffering, Wilde demanded justice for vulnerable bodies/minds that places like Reading rendered at risk. Indeed, in all three of the only texts he published after his incarceration (two published letters to the Daily Chronicle on prison reform and in his powerful poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol), Wilde shows himself to be a voice who calls to us from out of the depths of self-reflection to learn with him important lessons about love and kindness, justice and equality.

Foss Gives Wilde Presentation in Charlotte

Professor of English Chris Foss, wearing an Oscar Wilde T-shirt.

Professor of English Chris Foss, wearing an Oscar Wilde T-shirt.

On October 22, Professor of English Chris Foss presented a paper entitled “Reflection and Refraction in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ and Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant” at the annual conference of the Victorians Institute in Charlotte, NC.

Foss first examined Wilde’s literary endorsement of fantasy over realism as a valuable entry point for considering Victorian reflections on disability and freakery, in particular where the nexus of poverty and disability-aligned difference is concerned. Seeing the Giant’s peculiar body as aligned with other nonnormative ones, especially freakish bodies, opens a new appreciation for how the story stands out relative to many other Victorian literary representations of disability.

Victorians Institute Program Cover

Victorians Institute Program Cover

Wilde’s prison literature testifies to the extent to which Wilde’s own enfreakment and enfoolment in jail provided profound personal experiences of physical and psychological illness/disability that led him to refract but ultimately retain the tenor of his fairy tale. In the second half of the paper, Foss suggested how Barnard’s 2013 film both builds upon and departs from its Victorian predecessor’s approach. While employing a decidedly darker and unrelentingly realistic lens, Barnard’s film reinforces Wilde’s exposure of the ill treatment of and the damage done to disability-aligned bodies/minds, as well as his emphasis upon love and responsiveness in the face of suffering and loss.

Bringing together the reflection and refraction of Victorian ways of seeing disability-aligned difference through the pairing of these two texts compellingly supports the value of continuing the conversations around disability that Wilde’s Victorian fairy tales prompted over 125 years ago.

Foss Publishes Book Chapter in Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability

Cover of The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability

Cover of The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability

Professor of English Chris Foss has published a book chapter entitled “‘Here There Be Monsters’: Mapping Novel Representations of the Relationship between Disability and Monstrosity in Recent Graphic Narratives and Comic Books” in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability, a significant new collection of essays edited by Alice Hall that according to the press “brings together some of the most influential and important contemporary perspectives in this growing field” of disability studies. Notable names among the contributors include Elizabeth Donaldson, Chris Gabbard, Leon Hilton, Petra Kuppers, David Mitchell, Michael Northen, Sami Schalk, and Jess Waggoner.

Foss’s chapter argues that three recent comics texts each present an instructive range of ambiguous, disabling, but above all enabling possibilities where the nexus of disability and monstrosity is concerned: the highly praised comics collections Monstress [Volumes 1 and 2] by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (2016-17), the much ballyhooed debut graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters [Book One] by Emil Ferris (2017), and the unheralded four-page Monster Girl comic by Helene Fischer (2017). These texts offer an illuminating starting point for the further exploration of the metaphorical assumptions about disability and monstrosity with which they engage, all the while reaffirming the crucial role of the genre’s own hybridity in foregrounding such considerations. That is, the location of the monstrous body in this particular textual format offers a range of diverse possibilities for both reinforcing and exploding the normative borders that have been constructed to define what is monstrous as dangerous/deformed/diseased. What is more, these texts encourage an intersectional approach to how multiple other facets of the monstrous (such as class-based/socioeconomic, ethnic/racial, and gendered/sexual aspects) overlap with disabled monstrosity and together blur, cross, deconstruct, and/or erase numerous lines along their various borders around the human.

Foss Publishes Wilde Article as Part of Waple Professorship Work

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss has published a refereed article entitled “Reconsidering the Role of Pity in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Star-Child’” for the current number of Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, one of the top venues for scholarly work on disability and literature. This piece will serves as the basis for the second content chapter in Foss’s Waple Professorship book project tentatively called The Importance of Being Different: Intersectional Disability and Emotional Response in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, and on the basis of this and other work already completed on the manuscript Foss recently has been offered an advance contract for his book from the University of Virginia Press.

The article aims at a critical reconsideration of pity through a close reading of Wilde’s fairy tale “The Star-Child,” exploring how it seems both to replicate stereotypically pejorative assumptions about disability and to contain more progressive aspects. Through the disability-aligned characters of the Star-Child (initially the embodiment of physical perfection, but eventually transformed into a scaly toadfaced freak) and his mother (a queen turned beggar-woman so physically repulsive her son finds her too horrible to look upon), Wilde’s text requires one to consider the extent to which its representation of pity reinforces a hierarchical division between the fortunate and the unfortunate while encouraging a view of disability as an “evil” fate, but also the extent to which it endorses a more empowering version of pity founded upon love, reciprocity, and action. It may remain unclear whether Wilde is teasing readers for allowing themselves to be manipulated into sentimentalized pity for his protagonist or offering them a sincere attempt at theorizing a more properly humanizing and efficacious version of the much maligned emotion, but, regardless, the complexities of parsing such complicated and contradictory possibilities within “The Star-Child” justify the importance of an earnest reconsideration of the relation between pity and disability.

Foss Publishes Book Review

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss has published an approximately 1600-word book review of Chris Gabbard’s A Life Beyond Reason in the most recent number of the journal Eighteenth Century Studies. Gabbard was hired out of Stanford by the University of North Florida because of his expertise in the literature of the British Enlightenment. His book, however, is no scholarly monograph on the Age of Reason, but rather a moving personal memoir chronicling his family’s life and times in their own very different Augustan Age, a period which commenced with the birth of his son August. This amazing boy lived for 14 years facing a litany of diagnoses stemming from the complications of an obstructed labor: “cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia, profound mental retardation, cortical visual impairment, microcephaly, seizure disorder, osteopenia—and the list went on” (35). There is pain and suffering aplenty in this narrative, along with understandable doses of anger and frustration, but above all this is a story about love and joy, and long before one reaches the final page it is abundantly clear that Gabbard’s Augustan Age has not ended with an untimely death from pneumonia; the child lives on not only in the author’s memory, but through this book in the hearts and minds of every reader who meets him and comes to appreciate the many lessons a life beyond reason holds for all.

A Life Beyond Reason book cover

Socrates’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (11) serves as the pivot upon which Gabbard transforms his whole understanding of what matters in life, for August’s cognitive capacity prevents him from ever being able to examine his life in this way, and yet Gabbard finds plenty of worth in the pleasure August not merely experiences but expresses through shrieks of glee and squawks of delight, through his contagious laughter. Gabbard credits disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson, and her public debates with philosopher Peter Singer, as crystalizing his new position on what exactly constitutes a life worth living. Singer’s position on decriminalizing child euthanasia is based on a belief that disabled lives “will be permeated with suffering and therefore will not be worth living” is informed by a belief that equates personhood with “characteristics like rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness” (100). The accomplished and articulate Johnson not only embodied how an individual’s life with a severe disability is anything but “intrinsically suboptimal” (100), but she further revealed how relationships with such persons, far from being worthless, can in fact be “profoundly beautiful” (103).

Gabbard offers Coleridge likely would judge him (as he did Wordsworth’s Betty Foy from “The Idiot Boy”) as an “impersonation of an instinct abandoned by judgment,” for “what is love,” he continues, “if not ‘instinct abandoned by judgment’?” (104). With this epiphany, life beyond reason in his own Age of Johnson/Augustan Age clarifies “it is not the unexamined life that is not worth living but the life without love” (104). Drawing on the “land of interdependence” he finds in Donne’s “Meditation 17” (85), Gabbard posits his shared experiences with his son constitute “a mutually beneficial ethics of care” (108). Attuned to “August’s little ways”—“the twitch of his lips, the shift of an eyebrow,” his grins and grimaces, his fussing and laughing—Gabbard views their connection not as “adhering to a so—called custodial care model” but instead as “characterized neither by his dependence on me not by my surrender of independence to him” (108). That is, while they “depended upon one another in radically different ways,” the father’s caregiving was anything but “selfless”: “I needed him as much as he needed me. If I didn’t love him, all of this effort would have been a grudging sacrifice. But he made me happy, and, so, in our peculiar way, we split everything down the middle” (109).

Foss Publishes Book Chapter on Oscar Wilde

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss has published a book chapter entitled “The Importance of Being Green: Pen, Pencil and Poison as a Study in Close Reading and Color Decoding” in Critical Insights: Oscar Wilde, an essay collection from Salem Press/EBSCO edited by Frederick S. Roden.

Oscar Wilde is indisputably one of the most colorful literary figures of the past 150 years, perhaps in no small part owing to his own awareness, appreciation, and application of color across his life and work. Given the heyday Irish writers currently continue to enjoy (in both academic and more popular circles) as part and parcel of the general ascendancy of all things Irish in the 1990s, it may seem self-evident that green might serve as one of the most significant pigments on Wilde’s palette. It is, though, perhaps somewhat more provocative to suggest one must turn to his largely overlooked prose piece “Pen, Pencil and Poison”—a piece republished and newly minted with a green subtitle during his golden year of 1891—if one is to fully grasp the importance of being green for Wilde the critic and artist.

Critical Insights: Oscar Wilde book cover

In “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde pays tribute to Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (a now-obscure minor poet, painter, and man of letters from the first half of the century, more infamous as a convicted forger and suspected poisoner than famous as an artist).  As the subtitle suggests, the secret to unpacking Wilde’s very personal and impressionistic rendering of his subject depends upon his subtle application of the various shades of green at play in the piece. In my reading, he employs green to invoke his own particular versions of aestheticism, homophile desire, and Irish nationalism. What is more, he blends these shades in such a way that one may begin to see all three of these foci as inextricably intertwined—intertwined with each other, and intertwined with fin-de-siècle decadence and its dangerous liaisons with sin and crime.

Foss Presents Working Chapter from Waple Book Manuscript Project at South Atlantic Modern Language Association

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss

Oscar Wilde

In November, Professor of English Chris Foss presented a paper entitled “’He remembered that the little Mermaid had no feet and could not dance’: The Nexus of Power, Identity, and Relationships in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’ as Seen through the Lens of Disability Studies” as part of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference at the Westin Peachtree in Atlanta. In his paper, Foss argued “The Fisherman and His Soul” offers a fascinating trawl of entangled elements relative to its two main disability-aligned characters, a little Mermaid and a young Fisherman (the latter only becoming so after he cuts away his Soul from his body). The story offers a clear undermining of the sort of monstrous identities those in power insist upon assigning to those different from them in an attempt to limit any new understandings of or relationships with any groups or individuals upon whose othering their authority and privilege depends. This paper represents the first draft of the fourth content chapter for his Waple Professorship book project entitled The Importance of Being Different: Intersectional Disability and Emotional Response in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales.

Foss Publishes Book Review of Academic Ableism

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss

Professor of English Chris Foss has published a 1500-word book review of Jay Timothy Dolmage’s watershed work Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education in Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, one of the top two scholarly journals in the field of disability studies today.

The book’s charge is “not just to recognize where and how ableism happens, but to ask what the impact will be of exposing it, what the cost might be of assigning blame, and what the forces are that make it imperceptible, what the euphemisms are that disguise it, and how it comes to be normalized, even valorized in academia” (58). Dolmage sets up his argument in a superb Introduction that exposes “the university as a rhetorical space that holds a history of injustice in its architecture” (9).

After noting higher education’s inextricable imbrication with the shameful histories of eugenics and colonial science, Dolmage transitions into a disheartening assessment of the state of the university in the present day. Statistics on underused and ineffective accommodations (here, for faculty/staff as well), attendance and graduation delays, heavier debt, etc. for students with disabilities—combined with the frustrating realities of how overworked and underfunded disability resource offices continue to be—reveal in very sobering terms the persistent ableism still preventing so many disabled people from fully accessing, much less successfully navigating, the world of academia. What is more, Dolmage’s observation, “The programs and initiatives that are developed in the name of diversity and inclusion do not yet deliver tangible means of addressing the ableism inherent in higher education” (26), sadly is all too true.

For Dolmage, owing to the logic of the retrofit, “disability has become the Whack-a-Mole of higher education” (91), the latter’s “structural exclusion” both “abetted and allowed by forms of temporary, tokenized, and tenuous inclusion” (85). As he elaborates at the beginning of his fourth chapter, “Universal Design is not about buildings, it is about building—building community, building better pedagogy, building opportunities for agency.  It is a way to move” (118). At the same time, prone to “checklistification” (145) and the passive recycling of old initiatives (143-44), universal design is “as dangerous as it is useful” when it serves administrators’ “neoliberal justifications for cutting back on funding” (150). In the end, it is up to us to take up the mantle of Dolmage’s project (and its goal, as reiterated in the book’s final sentence, “to give [us] ways to change higher education” [191]) by building upon his indispensable groundwork.

Dolmage was our featured speaker here in August 2018, thanks to the generosity and support of Provost Mikhalevsky and Associate Provost O’Donnell. If you never got around to reading his book, remember that you may access it for free online at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/u/ump/mpub9708722. You also can check it out his online appendix of resources aimed at giving “teachers some places to actually begin changing the classroom and the syllabus” (150) at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/u/ump/mpub9708722/1:13/–academic-ableism-disability-and-higher-education?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

UMW Senior Does Groundbreaking Autism and Gender Research

Ren Koloni wants to make academia a more welcoming place for people like them. And at the University of Mary Washington, Koloni found space where they could do just that. Koloni, who identifies as transgender and nonbinary – neither male nor female – and uses they/them pronouns, is autistic and has multiple disabilities. UMW appealed […]