Event—Public Programming

Self Expression: A Recovery Project

If you asked a roomful of English professors a hundred years ago why it is important to study modern literature, a good number of them might have said, "because it is a form of self-expression." Over the course of the twentieth century, though, Anglo-American literary scholars taught themselves to despise the idea of self-expression. Even today, the notion is widely seen by experts as a mere "folk" concept, a notion that may be suitable for journalistic or pop-cultural writing, but that has no place in serious scholarly analyses of textual culture. Meanwhile, in the public sphere beyond academe, the idea of expressing oneself does indeed seem more current than ever; never before, to take just one example, has the term been so closely associated with the public utterances of an American president. This presentation will suggest that the present-day disjuncture between scholarly and non-scholarly ideas about self-expression is unfortunate and unnecessary, and will show that the disjuncture has important historical precursors in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, when self-expression first rose to prominence as an ideal of American public life.