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This interdisciplinary seminar hosts leading national and regional scholars who present works-in-progress that explore aspects of eighteenth-century European culture of vital interest and concern to the wider field of eighteenth-century studies.  Like our guest speakers, our membership is drawn from a wide variety of institutions and disciplines: history, literature, philosophy, political science, music, history of science, and art, as well as national traditions. The Seminar’s offerings are eclectic, but from time to time our Seminar has hosted special events such as symposia on the 18th-century reception of Classical, Hellenistic, and Late Antique texts (2003) and the intellectual origins of freedom of speech (2007, ­2008).  Proceedings from the latter recently appeared as a collection of essays edited by former Chair Elizabeth Powers, Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea (Bucknell University Press, 2011). Most recently, our Seminar has co-sponsored, with the Seminar on Early Modern France, a series of roundtables on new directions in eighteenth-century studies under the rubric of “Literature and History in Dialogue.” Past roundtables have been devoted to concepts of authorship (Fall 2010), eighteenth-century science studies (Spring 2011), and comparative colonialisms and orientalisms (Fall 2011). Our 2012-2013 program marks the Seminar’s 50th year in operation.

Past Meetings

Professor Stephanie Hershinow

Professor Kathleen Lubey

Katherine Bergevin

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/05/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Toward a Theory of the Witness-Protagonist
Anastasia Eccles, Yale University


Literary history is stocked with characters who do little and see much. Now a familiar fixture of the novel, the character type I call the witness-protagonist has its roots in eighteenth century fiction. This paper traces this constitutively recessive yet formally dominant figure through several of its long-eighteenth-century guises: Richardson's “man of feeling” Sir Charles Grandison, Austen’s “creepmouse” heroine Fanny Price, and the Scott protagonists that Lukács would memorably codify as his “mediocre heroes.” Although the novels in this story are formally and generically eclectic, they each put forward a protagonist who seems at once too much and too little present, whose interests sit just beside or cut across the direction of the novel’s plot. Perhaps more surprisingly, these novels also share a concern with the grounds and limits of political belonging. My interest, then, is in how and why this problematic character type becomes a vector for political thinking, a question that my least known example—Charlotte Smith’s Jacobin novel Desmond (1792)—helps illuminate.

10/17/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Disturbing the Novel: Lazarillo de Tormes in England, 1688-1789
Richard Squibbs, DePaul University


The picaresque tale – a first-person account of low life and the struggle to survive in a hostile world that dates back to Golden Age Spain – was arguably the first modern form of fiction. Its cagey narrative perspective, gritty representations of life on the street, and gleeful hostility to hypocritical clergy and a corrupt gentry offered European writers the raw materials for what would become the novel, while creating the persona of the anti-hero. But while we tend to think of picaresque as a crude precursor of the more sophisticated formulations of subjectivity and “real life” in the mature novel, the picaresque narrative strain – always protean – would reappear, again and again, throughout the eighteenth century to mock and disturb new developments in novelistic storytelling. This talk will focus on a remarkable series of English translations of the first Spanish picaresque tale, Lazarillo de Tormes, to suggest that the eighteenth-century English novel was almost unthinkable without the abiding presence of the picaro as a kind of prickly formal conscience.

11/07/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Rethinking the Fourth Wall
Terry Robinson, University of Toronto (Canada)


My talk asks us to rethink 'the fourth wall,' a perceptual phenomenon commonly associated with the theatrical advent of the box set, dimmed auditoriums, and the late nineteenth-century staging innovations of André Antoine. In my analysis of what the great tragic actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) termed 'abstraction' and its link to Denis Diderot's theory of 'absorption,' I suggest that we understand the fourth wall more capaciously as a realistic effect instantiated not just by theatre architecture but by scenography, wherein the actor’s body plays a crucial if not more important role than either building or set design. As I aim to show, Siddons realized the fourth wall through her acting practices, and in so doing forged a new cognitive and co-creative relationship between viewer and viewed—an intimate distance that captivated spectators, among them, the day's top painters Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, and Joseph Severn.

01/22/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Jennifer Van Horn, University of Delaware

02/20/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Allison Turner, Columbia University

03/12/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Andrew Franta, University of Utah

04/23/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM