“Envying the Poor” A Talk by Professor Carolyn Betensky

Dr. Carolyn Betensky’s talk based on her recent article “Envying the Poor: Contemporary and Nineteenth-Century Fantasies of Vulnerability” examines the envy of vulnerability as an underlying tension that structures relations between 19th-century bourgeois readers and literary representations of the working poor. What makes Dr. Betensky’s argument especially illuminating is its transhistorical significance; she offers a unique pairing between the nineteenth-century novel and the right-wing rhetoric of the 2012 presidential campaigns, highlighting “resentment from above” and “fantasies of mastery.” The contemporary relevance is grounded in Mitt Romney’s avowal that the discontent of the “99%” with the “1%” betrays “a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach.” At issue in both the nineteenth century and our present moment is the vulnerable poor’s alleged special power, as perceived by the rich, derived from the sympathy aroused by the “precarity” of their situation.

What Dr. Betensky models for her peers and her students is a kind of historical, literary scholarship with implications for the present, implicitly posing a response to the question, why study literature? In her talk, delivered to a full Hoffman Room on September 18th at the University of Rhode Island, Dr. Betensky engaged her audience, who laughed, questioned and hypothesized about the implications of her argument along with her. One highlight of the post-talk discussion was when one of Dr. Betensky’s undergraduate students inquired if we might observe this kind of vulnerability envy in gender relationships— a question that opened the floor to the kind of critical discourse that makes scholarship like Dr. Betensky’s absolutely essential.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Betensky to learn more about the motivation for her article, which extends the argument of her 2010 book, Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel.

Can you comment on the impetus for your book and the subsequent article?

I started graduate school in the late 80s and it was a time when literary theory and criticism seemed to be very important. It seemed that it really mattered what one read and the way one read theoretically; it seemed that theory could change the world. People were talking about books, or literary theory, as being subversive, and it seemed as if reading was where the power was. That attracted me to literary study, but eventually I came to be critical of the idea that reading books could in and of itself make a difference.

One moment that made things come together for me was when I was reading a book of criticism and the scholar said that a particular novel by Elizabeth Gaskell made the reader look poverty in the eye and that the reader, then, could not look away. I felt, as I read that, that’s absolutely not true. We can feel for the poor, have that feeling, and then move on, which is a problem.

How do you perceive the role of theory currently?

Theory touted itself as politically important. That’s what attracted me to it. All of our analyses of power made it seem like people in the humanities had an important role to play in understanding the state of the world and changing it. We still have a role, but it’s different from the ideal of subverting through language; now we need to adopt other measures. I want to actually engage in dialogue, get at things that are hard, and be open to the idea of understanding things I do not understand.

What prompted you to consider Mitt Romney in the context of 19th-century novels?

I am less interested in the 19th century for its own sake, and more intrigued by what it can tell us about who we have become. I think it’s really important to do what Foucault calls a “history of the present.”

Can you talk, briefly, about your writing process?

It’s always about something that gets stuck in my mind, that bothers me, or that doesn’t make sense to me. I never write about something that doesn’t come from a genuine need to figure something out. Sometimes, something I’m reading speaks to me in some oblique way about an idea that is obsessing some other self-state in me.

Dr. Carolyn Betensky is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Rhode Island.

This article was written by English PhD candidate Meghan Fair.

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