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William A. Cohen

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Professor, English

(301) 405-9354

2110 Marie Mount Hall
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Research Expertise

Film Studies and Cultural Studies
LGBTQ Studies
Literary Theory
Post-1900 British and Irish
Victorian

William A. Cohen is Professor of English, Associate Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Studies. Previously he was Director of Undergraduate Studies (2006-09), Associate Chair (2010-12), and Chair (2012-15) of the English department. His scholarship and teaching focus on literature and culture of the Victorian period; the history of sexuality, the body, and the senses; and literary theory. He has published articles in such journals as Narrative, Victorian Literature and Culture, ELH, PMLA, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and South Atlantic Quarterly, as well as three books. The first, Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction (Duke University Press, 1996), investigates nineteenth-century British novels and newspaper scandals. It argues that the unspeakable status of sexuality affords writers an opportunity to develop a complex discourse—richly ambiguous, subtly coded, prolix and polyvalent—now designated by the term “literary.” This book was supported by a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Wesleyan University and received widespread attention in the scholarly and popular press when it was published.

His second book, Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (co-edited with Ryan Johnson, University of Minnesota Press, 2005), is an anthology of a dozen interdisci­plin­ary essays focused on London and Paris of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It proposes that the rejection of filth serves crucial functions of social management and identity formation, bringing together practices that designate some people (the poor, the foreign, the immoral) as dirty and therefore dangerous; psychological experiences of disgust and sometimes pleasurable defilement; and the phenomenology of perception. Work on this project was supported by a residential fellowship from the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.

Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) offers a new approach to discussions of human embodiment in literary and cultural studies. Rather than regarding the bodily exterior as the primary location in which identity categories (such as gender, sexuality, race, and disability) are expressed, Embodied focuses on the interior experience of sensation, whereby these politics come to be felt. Drawing on the phenomenological tradition of Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Guattari, and Bataille, the book charts a materialist thesis through works by Victorian writers who ceased to identify human nature with an ethereal soul or spirit, and instead presented the essence of the human as an effect of the body.

Professor Cohen is currently at work on “Intermediate French: British Literature from the July Monarchy to the Dreyfus Affair,” which considers the affective dimensions of the French language—especially when incompletely mastered—in works by English-speaking authors. One section, “Why Is There So Much French in Villette?”, has been published in ELH. “Wilde’s French” was published in Wilde Discoveries: Traditions, Histories, Archives (University of Toronto Press, 2013), and other portions have been presented at the North American Victorian Studies Association, at the Dickens Bicentenary conference in Paris, Boulogne, Chatham, and London, at the CUNY Graduate Center Victorian symposium, and at other venues. This research has been supported by grants from the William Andrews Clark and Huntington libraries. “Arborealities: The Tactile Ecology of Hardy’s Woodlanders” was presented as a keynote at the Victorian Tactile Imagination conference (Birkbeck College, University of London) and the Northeast Victorian Studies Association, and has been published in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. It received Honorable Mention in the North American Victorian Studies Association's Donald Gray Prize for the best essay published in the field of Victorian Studies in 2014. He was guest editor and wrote the introduction to the "Victorian Dirt" issue (winter 2015) of the peer-reviewed online journal Victorian Network. Professor Cohen received the Faculty Service Award from the Graduate English Organization in 2012. He was elected to the executive committee of the Modern Language Association forum on Victorian and Early-20th-Century English literature; he is a member of the PMLA Advisory Committee and the advisory board of Studies in Sensory History (University of Illinois Press).

Publications

"Victorian Dirt"

Every idea about our Victorian forebears is in some sense an idea about ourselves. Knowledge of the past is inevitably refracted through the present.

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:
The phrase “Victorian dirt” invites consideration in part because it strikes us as an oxymoron: even with all we know about the range and variety of human experience in the nineteenth century, it is hard not to cling to the caricature of the Victorians as stuffy prudes who found the very idea of dirt alarming, not to say unthinkable. The phrase promises disenchantment, titillation, and defamiliarisation. With the presumed superiority of our own acuity and worldliness, and the privileges of hindsight, we harbour the fantasy that we may know the Victorians better than they knew themselves. What we learn from such investigations, however, is just how attached we are to values of cleanliness and sanitation, which makes the discovery of nineteenth-century dirt a perpetual experience of joyful disgust and self-affirming discomfort. Even more, perhaps, we learn how attracted we are to the experience of revelation itself: the unveiling of the hidden, the secret, the unknown—even when the constituents of that knowledge can hardly continue to surprise us.

Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses

William A. Cohen considers the meaning of sensory encounters in works by writers including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:
Rather than regarding the bodily exterior as the primary location in which identity categories—such as gender, sexuality, race, and disability—are expressed, he focuses on the interior experience of sensation, whereby these politics come to be felt.

Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses

What does it mean to be human? British writers in the Victorian period found a surprising answer to this question.

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:

What does it mean to be human? British writers in the Victorian period found a surprising answer to this question. What is human, they discovered, is nothing more or less than the human body itself. In literature of the period, as well as in scientific writing and journalism, the notion of an interior human essence came to be identified with the material existence. The organs of sensory perception were understood as routes of exchange between the interior and the external worlds.

Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life

What waste reveals about the culture that creates it.

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:
This book explores the question of what filth has to do with culture: what critical role the lost, the rejected, the abject, and the dirty play in social management and identity formation.

Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life

This new volume of essays explores what waste reveals about the culture that creates it

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:

This new volume of essays explores what waste reveals about the culture that creates it. From floating barges of urban refuse to dung-encrusted works of art, from toxic landfills to dirty movies, filth has become a major presence and a point of volatile contention in modern life. This book explores the question of what filth has to do with culture: what critical role the lost, the rejected, the abject, and the dirty play in social management and identity formation. It suggests the ongoing power of culturally mandated categories of exclusion and repression.

Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction

Never has the Victorian novel appeared so perverse as it does in these pages -- and never has its perversity seemed so fundamental to its accomplishment.

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:

Never has the Victorian novel appeared so perverse as it does in these pages -- and never has its perversity seemed so fundamental to its accomplishment. Whether discussing George Eliot's lesbian readers, Anthony Trollope's whorish heroines, or Charles Dickens's masturbating characters, Cohen's study explodes the decorum of mainstream nineteenth-century fiction. By viewing this fiction alongside the most alarming public scandals of the day, Cohen exposes both the scandalousness of this literature and its sexiness. Scandal, then as now, makes public the secret indiscretions of prominent people, engrossing its audience in salacious details that violate the very code of propriety its aims to enforce.

Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction

Never has the Victorian novel appeared so perverse as it does in these pages—and never his its perversity seemed so fundamental to its accomplishment.

English

Lead: William A. Cohen
Dates:
Whether discussing George Eliot’s lesbian readers, Anthony Trollope’s whorish heroines, or Charles Dickens’s masturbating characters, William A. Cohen’s study explodes the decorum of mainstream nineteenth-century fiction. By viewing this fiction alongside the most alarming public scandals of the day, Cohen exposes both the scandalousness of this literature and its sexiness. Scandal, then as now, makes public the secret indiscretions of prominent people, engrossing its audience in salacious details that violate the very code of propriety it aims to enforce. In narratives ranging from Great Expectations to the Boulton and Park sodomy scandal of 1870–71, from Eliot’s and Trollope’s novels about scandalous women to Oscar Wilde’s writing and his trials for homosexuality, Cohen shows how, in each instance, sexuality appears couched in coded terms. He identifies an assortment of cunning narrative techniques used to insinuate sex into Victorian writing, demonstrating that even as such narratives air the scandalous subject, they emphasize its unspeakable nature.