By JARED S. RICHMAN
To the Editor,
In her recent opinion piece in The Catalyst, former Editor-in-Chief Samantha Silverman expresses disappointment over the college’s decision to name Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein” or, “The Modern Prometheus,” as this coming fall’s first-year “common read.” She notes that despite her personal enthusiasm for Gothic literature, she finds the choice inappropriate.
Here, I’d like to respond to her comments, but more broadly I’d like to offer a different perspective on the college’s choice for the common read in light of those comments. (I should note that while I was not a part of the First Year Experience committee that chose the text, I was the one who submitted it for the committee’s consideration).
Separating Gothic literature from its historical, political, and social context, Ms. Silverman ignores the cultural and political history of its genesis. As it emerged in Britain during the 1700s, the Gothic mode responded to that nation’s growing religious, racial, and ethnic anxieties in the years following the Protestant Reformation and the social and economic effects of Britain’s first colonial empire. England’s fear and subsequent critique of its former medieval Catholic identity appears everywhere in Gothic literature of the era—from characteristic Spanish and Italian settings to the shocking rendering of violence, sexual transgression, and moral depravity of nuns, priests, magistrates, and princes.
In the early 19th century and beyond, authors and artists would employ the Gothic to express mounting concern over rapid advances in what Shelley’s contemporaries called “natural philosophy” and technology, that is, broadly speaking, the newly delineated disciplines of science: chemistry, biology, geology, medicine, engineering, physics, and so on.
But at its heart, the Gothic was a literary mode obsessed with forms of difference and identity: racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, moral, and economic. Modern scholars, philosophers, and media critics have been writing for many, many years on the ways in which “Frankenstein” engages these complex issues.
In her article, Ms. Silverman noted that in her first three years at CC, “the school has engaged in discussions of race, gender, mass incarceration, learning disabilities, stereotype threat, the power of poems, social justice and privilege.” Indeed, then, Ms. Silverman must surely welcome the choice of “Frankenstein” as the next common read, for even a casual reading of the work reveals the novel to be about all of these concerns and several others that she claims are most urgent for the incoming first-year class to discuss (e.g. racism, physical/mental disability, political authority, colonialism, gender identity, and educational access to name just a few).
“People are writing too much about what’s happening right now to look 200 years in the past for much-needed answers to our skewed social and political systems,” Ms. Silverman wrote. My hope is that Ms. Silverman is not suggesting here that we stop investigating the past as a means to understanding the present. Given that “Frankenstein” was written by a 19-year- old woman whose social activist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, birthed modern feminism, and whose father, William Godwin, we remember as one of the great progressive philosophers and champions of political justice, it would seem surprising that American college students in 2018 would not be able to find the work relevant to their own cultural and historical surroundings. “Frankenstein” is about how and why we got here—to this very moment.
The manner in which “Frankenstein” has influenced our contemporary world is simply too vast and broad to detail here. Yet briefly we might consider that the novel’s 200-year legacy has, if nothing else, challenged us to revisit urgent questions about physical difference and monstrosity (moral and physical), to say nothing of its clear influence over the current debate surrounding scientific discovery and technological advances—everything from in vitro fertilization, cloning, and “designer babies,” to genetic manipulation and so-called “Frankenfoods,”.
Moreover, “Frankenstein” has much to contribute to debates over women’s rights, abortion, parenthood, education, suicide, systems of justice and punishment, and political sovereignty. A creation narrative that questions biblical assumptions about gender and species hierarchy, “Frankenstein” also demands that we consider the origins of racial privilege and social exclusion, the kind with which we find ourselves wrestling today. For at its heart, the novel is a mediation on the very nature and definition of humanity itself.
Surely, in a text that takes up so many urgent issues, one might find, as Ms. Silverman desires of the common read, “real insight on what’s happening right now.”
Dr. Jared S. Richman
Associate Chair and Associate Professor
Department of English