Victoria Olwell

Victoria Olwell (University of Virginia) is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department. Her first book, The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945, examines how ideas of genius provided a means for conceptualizing women’s participation in a democracy that marginalized them. Widely distributed across print media but reaching their fullest development in literary fiction, tropes of female genius figured types of subjectivity and forms of collective experience capable of overcoming the existing constraints on political life. Olwell shows how US fiction catalyzed political models of female genius, especially in works by Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Mary Hunter Austin, Jessie Fauset, and Gertrude Stein. Feminist narratives of female genius projected desires for a modern public life open to new participants and new kinds of collaboration, even as philosophical and scientific ideas of intelligence and creativity could often disclose troubling and more regressive dimensions.

“Literary Fiction and the Ambiguities of Consent” takes on the ways that the power of consent to confer legitimacy on a whole range of social bonds and interactions, from the most trivial to the most momentous, attracted intensive and anxious scrutiny in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US. Enlightenment conceptions of consent frayed under the pressure of historical forces, including extensions of the voting franchise, imperial expansion, and more subtle shifts in thinking about the sexual body, theories of child development, and private contract. Literary fiction absorbed new controversies about consent, often rendering them in intricate constructions of subjectivity and narrative explorations of the meaning of choice, in context and over time. This talk lays out some of the major terms of fiction’s engagement with the problematic of consent and argues for fiction’s role in shaping the intersecting paradoxes of modern state sovereignty and private agency.


Posted in Past Presenters