My work focuses on the experience and politics of reading and reception. I work on how literature from the past get picked up and repurposed again and again across decades. I also examine more intimate temporalities of reading: how novels (and other longform narratives) script particular reading experiences over their length. Lately, I've been thinking using the framework of futurity: how does the awareness of a future---from the next clause in the sentence to the future readers of a work to massive historical changes such as revolution or climate change---change how we act or think (or read or write) in the present?
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How do novels travel through time? How might they endure in a changing world and reach the readers of an unknowable future? Modernist writers were obsessed with questions like these and were eager to think of their books as reaching audiences they could not yet imagine. However, in recent years scholars of modernism have focused on pinning them down, putting these books in their context and these authors in their place.
Out of Context suggests an alternative to this scholarship, proposing that literature travels through time not by transcending history but by adapting to historical change. this approach reveals that the significance of literature is in its moments of surprising reception---in the way literary works make themselves useful to many times and places. This book pairs three modernist authors with later writers, exploring the transhistorical dialogue between these novelists. James Baldwin adapts Henry James's modes of characterization; Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o repurposes Joseph Conrad's nonchronological narratives; and Ken Kesey builds on William Faulkner's use of multiple perspectives. Reading modernist literature through these authors' eyes offers a different perspective. Rather than see modernist literary form, in all its fragmentation and complexity, as a source of disruption and doubt, these later authors use modernist forms to distill doubts into conviction.
This book appeared in May 2018 from Oxford University Press in the series on Modernist Literature and Culture.
"Arguing that 'to read transhistorically is not to read ahistorically,' Out of Context offers a revelatory rereading of modernist literary history, one that is sure to cause a vital shift in the study of fiction written in the past two centuries." --Jesse Matz, William P. Rice Professor of English and Literature, Kenyon College
"Out of Context is an ambitious and provocative study that makes a series of important methodological claims about how to read, and in particular about the relation between different moments in literary history, and indeed the relation between literature and history itself." --Michael Gorra, Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language and Literature, Smith College
"Out of Context will be essential reading for anyone concerned with the stakes of reconsidering the political consequences and formal modulations of modernist fiction beyond mid-century. Michaela Bronstein offers a critically bold and timely rationale for examining the transhistorical uses and aspirations of modernist aesthetics." --David James, author of Modernist Futures
"Michaela Bronstein's account of Conrad's impact on America's Faulkner or Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o is the single most compelling account I have read of 'influence' in a lifetime of reading. Intricately conversant with Anglophone writers from many geographies and carrying out tour de force feats of stylistic analysis, the book founds a new method of transhistorical literary studies. Its pages seem to announce the coming of a new school of literary thinking." --Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value, Harvard University
Crimes for All Humanity: Revolution and the Modern Novel
This manuscript-in-progress puts transhistorical reception and use back into dialogue with historical context. This research focuses on a dense network of texts united both by their subject matter—what I'm calling utopian crime: violent action for the sake of a utopian future—and by their intertextual connections. A plotline that Dostoevsky writes in 19th-century Russia is rewritten by Conrad in 20th-century England. Conrad’s work is in turn rewritten by Ngugi in Kenya in 1960s Kenya. A Turgenev novel is reinvented by James, who is in turn reworked by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin—themselves also close readers of Dostoevsky. What makes revolutionaries—emblems of urgent and immediate social dilemmas—so portable across time and space? Though many of these authors worried that making a political statement and producing lasting art were incompatible goals, the history of their repurposing shows that a novel’s investment in an urgent political dilemma of its own time can enable, rather than obscure, its ability to find future readers. For these writers, the transhistorical dimensions of literary ambition are not a flight from historical involvement, but an attempt to think through the implications of writing for a world on the other side of a revolution to come. (Work from this project has appeared in American Literary History and the collection Crime Fiction as World Literature.)
For articles and other work, see my publications page.