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Professor Laura Fisher Releases Book "Reading for Reform"

March 05, 2019

On March 5th, English Department professor, Dr. Laura Fisher, published her first book Reading for Reform:The Social Work of Literature in the Progressive Era, external link (Minnesota University Press). Fisher argues the relevance of social reform institutions in literary and cultural analysis.

American literature and literature of cities are you specialties, what inspired you to focus on these in your masters and Ph.D. studies?

As a teenager I was really involved in DIY culture and made my own zine, which I traded with other young people across the world through the mail. Some of the best zines I read, zines that really changed the way I saw the world around me, were highly personal (we called them “perzines”). But they were also critical and analytical; the authors drew on gender theory and critical race theory as a framework for understanding their own lives. I knew that I wanted to continue reading and writing in this way. When I went on to do my undergraduate degree at McGill, I majored in Cultural Studies, which was a specific focus offered within the department of English. I took a lot of courses that allowed me to examine representations of race, class, and gender in literary and cultural texts, and I found that some of the most interesting work in this vein was coming out of the interdisciplinary field of American Studies. I decided to do my MA and PhD in American Literature at NYU. When you study in New York City, the city itself becomes a text and a resource. The historical period I ended up focusing on in my dissertation—the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century—is so influenced by the massive growth and transformation of American cities that American literature and urban culture just sort of synced naturally as compatible areas of study.

This is your first published book! In your own words (that is, not the back-of-the-book spiel), what is it about?

In the broadest terms, my book is about the history of the idea that literature could or should change people, and change the world. I think many of us still want to believe this, but where did this idea actually come from? Reading for Reform explores the way that people in positions of power have used literature and reading as vehicles of socialization, for good and for ill, and it looks at the radical counter-narratives that socially disadvantaged populations (women, people of color, immigrants, and working-class communities) have produced in response to those efforts. I try to tell a new story about modern American literary history from this perspective.  

Of the two authors mentioned in the synopsis of your book, Nella Larsen and Edith Wharton, Wharton is the name that the average literary person will know. Prior to taking your American Literature class, I had never heard of Nella Larsen, and haven’t heard her name since. Why do you think she is so overlooked? Why is she an important author to study?

Over the past several decades, Nella Larsen went from being a virtually unknown author who had burned bright for a few years in the 1920s before fading into obscurity into an author who is widely recognized for her innovative modernist form and her incredibly astute analysis of gender, race, and power. We have a generation of scholars from African American studies and women’s studies to thank for this: in the 1970s, scholars from these fields brought her two novellas back into print, which meant they could be taught in university classrooms. So from one perspective, I would say that Larsen is not overlooked at all; you really can’t teach American literature, women’s literature, African American literature without Passing and Quicksand. There have been countless journal articles and books written about Larsen in recent years. Her heroines are complicated, challenging, full of unrealized and inexpressible desires, and I find that students really connect with them. But at the same time, Nella Larsen’s name is probably not that familiar to the average reader. This all might change with the news that her book Passing is being adapted for the big screen in the coming months.

There is a whole new slew social movements. Do you think we face similar discussions in literature in the late 20th and into the 21st centuries about new social reforms?

There are many fascinating novels, poems, and plays that have grown out of contemporary progressive social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the environmental movement. Claudia Rankine’s incredible Citizen comes to mind here as a book that crystallizes, in poetic form, many of the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. Whereas the literature of early twentieth-century reform movements was often linked to periodicals (both major magazines and smaller, niche, and activist journals), contemporary protest writing is now more likely to emerge online, which means we need to be thinking about how things like blogs and twitter are shaping the literary culture of our time.

*Interview with a fourth year student.