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Rethinking the Historical Novel: Histories, Controversies, Futures

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Organizer: Monika Bhagat-Kennedy

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Historical fiction, and in particular the historical novel, has long been central to the imagining, interrogation, and subversion of ideas surrounding national pasts. In his seminal treatise The Historical Novel (1962), Georg Lukács posited that mass movements were crucial to the development of the form in nineteenth-century Europe by endowing “a sense and experience of history to broad masses.” He writes, “The appeal to national independence and national character is necessarily connected with a re-awakening of national history, with memories of the past, of past greatness, of moments of national dishonor, whether this results in a progressive or reactionary ideology” (25). While the many limitations of Lukács’s arguments have been well established, the theorist’s observations about the connections between nostalgia, history, and national identity resound today. In light of ongoing discussions about the saliency of categories such as the “global Anglophone,” “global novel,” and “world literature,” and particularly given the worldwide resurgence of nativism and nationalism in recent years, this panel invites papers that reflect on the ever-pressing question concerning the relationship between the historical novel and national (or other kinds of collective) self-definitions.   It also welcomes papers that seek to address the following related topics: What is the progressive and/or reactionary potential of the historical novel today as compared to earlier periods?  What kinds of imaginings does the historical novel enable or prohibit? How do we understand, following the empirically based arguments of James English (2016), that the literary novel has undergone “a radical retemporalization” over the past forty years to gravitate towards noncontemporaneous settings while contemporary settings continue to dominate in popular fiction? Thinking through the arguments of Hamish Dalley (2014) and Greg Forter (2019), to what extent does the category “postcolonial” obtain to describe particular historical novels? And given all of this, how might we begin to posit a provisional definition of the historical novel today?   Please submit paper proposals through the ACLA conference portal and contact the organizer Monika Bhagat-Kennedy ( with any questions.  

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