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“The only thing that matters is movement: not where you are, or what you have, but where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there.”  

--C.L.R James, Beyond a Boundary (1963).


Books are an accelerant. They set us alight, push us along, show us signs and wonders beyond our wildest imaginings. That is to say, they broaden and illuminate our lives. They make us new.

The life of the Trinidadian cricketer, historian, and activist Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) tells us this again and again. Books teach us things, things we can take on board in no other way. They show us that change is brilliant, and is in fact the only way to progress from worn-out and unexamined certainties toward new and stimulating ways of seeing and knowing.

For C.L.R. James, his essential book was William Thackeray’s 1848 novel of pretension and hypocrisy and of life itself, a book called Vanity Fair. James’ mother owned a ragged volume he reread countless times – so often, he says, that “I could confound the boys at school by telling them to open it anywhere, read a few words, and I would finish the passage, if not in the exact words, at least close enough." In time, James declared that “Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me.” High praise from a writer who once dominated countless debates about revolutions and revolutionaries, colonialism, social equality, and what must have seemed an endless and unwinnable Civil Rights argle-bargle.

What drew C.L.R. so strongly and so steadily toward books was that you had to listen, pay attention, and clock the constant drip of lies, evasions, and omissions, to call out the cheater and grifter, the jealous and afraid, and the just-plain-evil. And most of all, to beware “the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.” 

Books do help, but changing is hard. The solution is to find satisfaction and utility in what a book suggests or implies. Certainly, the five undergraduate scholars published in this year’s Paper Shell Review have done just that. For some of them, this may be their first foray into the world of print. Odds are, it won’t be their last.

Lauren Evans (University of Exeter) gets the ball rolling with “An Ecocritical Look at the Long Eighteenth Century’s Presentation of Wild Spaces.” In fact, she’s taken two looks, one short and one quite long: John Clare’s 1832 poem “The Nightingale’s Nest,” just 93 lines; and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, a leaden doorstop of long letters written on a journey through the daunting landscapes of Scandinavia. But the two points-of-view – tiny creatures cum brambles vs. sublime cliffs cum ice floes – demand the same two things from us: understanding and admiration.

Cassie Schifman (Brandeis University) has written on “Cupcake Trucks, Groundhogs, and the Unrealistic Beauty of Meg Ryan: Genre Aesthetics and Narrative Justification in Rom-Com.” These films, she asserts, seem to thrive in those “moments where our only recourse is to abandon rationality and engage with the text emotionally; it strives, at every possible level, to be so pretty that it almost hurts.” I.e., not unlike Meg Ryan herself.

Asa Brunet-Jailly (McGill University) has given us “‘Nature is the Source of All Cures’: Revolutionary Ecology in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.” The invention here is that the environment still manages to reflect the society that dominates it and then neglects it. Still, wilderness holds all the cards. And is capable of ending the fatal disconnect between humans and nature. It can make us calm down and come to our senses. But only if we embrace it, not just consume it.   

Haley Brown (Brandeis University) has brought us to the psychiatrist’s chaise-longue for a session on “Illusory, Latent, and Conflicting: The Resolutions of Psycho and Marnie.” Which, by the way, delivers my favorite quotation from this year’s Paper Shell Review: it’s from Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie: “You Freud, Me Jane,” uttered by Marnie (Tippi Hendren) at exactly 01:34:04 into the flic. These two films, which oddly have a lot to do with taxidermy (Psycho) and horse-back riding (Marnie), are in dire need of that.    

Finally, Kemi Omisore (University of Maryland) concludes the journal with “The Commercialization of Blackness: Consumerism’s Influence on African American Identity,” a look at the historical tensions in the market for, and interpretation of, writing about black lives. At the start, slave narratives were profitable because they lifted the veil from lives quite hidden from white readers. Trouble was, over time this could become tiresome. As a black character in a modern novel quoted by Kemi Omisore says to a white acquaintance: “These are no more my people than Abbott and Costello are your people.”

Michael Olmert
Professor, English Department
University of Maryland

Journal Information


William Wong

Managing Editors

Lylah Uttamsingh and Micah Herman

Graduate Advisor

Shalom Rosenberg

Reading Group Leaders

  • Loraine Chow
  • Delma Mbulaiteye
  • Greta Mun
  • Amy Zhong

Editorial Board

  • Alanna Anderson
  • Amanda Cash
  • Lexi Cohen
  • Daniel Chalk
  • Lily Dondoshansky
  • Laura Kazdoba
  • Sravya Kommuri
  • Gabby Melendez
  • Megan Rawlings
  • Helyn Steppa
  • Neil-Peace Tebid
  • Gabrielle Trivelli
  • Amelia Yasuda


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief

Deepest thanks to...

Karen Lewis and Christina Walter, for their dedication to the journal’s success and for supporting undergraduate communities like ours,

Shalom Rosenberg, for guiding the publication of this year’s journal and for his deep involvement in the journal’s success,

Scott Trudell, for promoting the communities formed through student engagement with the work of their peers,

The Center for Literary and Comparative Studies, for providing our funding, without which this project would not be possible,

Michael Olmert, for prefacing so many editions of this journal with thought-provoking prose,

Our editorial board, for spending precious hours reading and editing and for their commitment to the journal amidst tumultuous times,

Sohayl Vafai, for founding this wonderful journal some years ago,

Our contributors, without whom this journal would not exist,

And lastly, our readers, who make this journal worth printing in the first place and whose interest in literary criticism enlivens our academic and intellectual worlds.

William Wong
Editor-in-Chief, 2019-21


Spring 2021 Essays

General Essays