Emily Steinlight brings a modern look to Victorian-era studies

What does it mean to study the Victorian era now? For Emily Steinlight, it’s considering how 21st-century challenges, interests, and perspectives influence and inform how scholars examine the 19th century.

Emily Steinlight
Emily Steinlight, Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English (Image: Omnia)

“Take, for example, escalating social inequity or ecological damage,” she says. “What are the links to the Victorian era? It was the era of the Industrial Revolution and what we understand as industrial capitalism, and an era of massive imperial extraction of resources and labor on a global scale. Some of the essential economic, geopolitical, and environmental problems of the 21st century have roots in the 19th century, so that century’s forms of cultural expression have a lot to tell us in the present—and vice versa, I think.”

There’s a group of Victorianists interested in this “presentist” view of the 19th century: the V21 Collective. Steinlight, the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English, has been part of the group since it formed in early 2015.

“It started as a small group of scholars chatting at the 2014 Modern Language Association Convention and realizing we were interested in the same questions,” she explains. Some of the group distilled that conversation into a manifesto released online. “At a sort of inaugural symposium in 2015, organized by Anna Kornbluh [of University of Illinois at Chicago] and Benjamin Morgan [University of Chicago], we came together more formally. Since then, V21 has put together conference panels and roundtables, published special issues of journals, created online venues for collaboration and critical reflection on new work in the field, and pooled resources for teaching. But I think V21’s most successful effort, and my favorite thing we do, is the summer reading group.”

This article, by Lauren Rebecca Thacker, originally appeared in Omnia.