June 11, 2007

In The Novel and the Menagerie, Koenigsberger finds novels, circuses and zoos share common purposes


A zoo isn't a zoo without an elephant. Neither is a circus a circus without its displays of the large exotic beast. Nor is Kurt Koenigsberger's English department office, in Guilford House at Case Western Reserve University, fully his own without representations of wild animals.

Koenigsberger's collection of elephantine memorabilia reflects his interest in the many collections of living exotica that surface time and again in British writings and that play an important role in his newly published book, The Novel and the Menagerie: Totality, Englishness and the Empire (Ohio State University Press). His book examines the relations among the novel, the exotic collection, and the British Empire.

"The English imagined the world through their zoos, circuses and novels," said Koenigsberger, associate professor of English and director of composition at Case, adding that for much of the period he studies, that world was understood as an imperial one.

As Koenigsberger read and studied the works of Charles Dickens, Arnold Bennett, and Virginia Woolf for his doctoral work at Vanderbilt University, he began to find elephants popping up across British writing since the early 19th century.

Kurt Koenigsberger
Kurt Koenigsberger

"I began to see a pattern, and then looking more closely found interesting connections that emerged in British exhibitionary culture and the British Empire over the past two centuries," added the British literary specialist.

These "spaces of exhibition" form Koenigsberger's "backdrop" for his "exploration of the novel as a distinctive form of English narrative." He examines 19th and 20th century literature that incorporates zoological collections in text, including animal stories like those of Rudyard Kipling. Those collections, animals and stories hint at a greater Empire as the underlying canvas for the printed word in the form of the novel.

Narrative played a role in advancing English knowledge of and ideas about the empire both in novels and in exhibition handbills and posters.

He noted that, like collections and exhibitions, "the novel aimed to give a coherent picture of what life was like as a whole across Britain and was a chief point of reference during the 19th century, along with forms of print journalism."

The notion of the whole was important not just to the novel but also to a global empire upon which, it was said, the sun never set. Exotic animals gave a sense of this geopolitical connection and integration because "the animals came on a ship from some other place and were living pieces of other parts of the world," said Koenigsberger.

For instance, the elephant that could be found roaming the plains of India and Africa both were literally part of the lands under British rule and could stand in for them in exhibitions.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the display of exotic animals such as the elephant and the tiger united the British people in a common culture of imperial exhibition, explained the author.

While circuses and exhibits of the exotica showcased the unusual outside the grasp of normal English life, Koenigsberger said, "The novel is also an exhibitionary instrument that displays something about English life and also about the larger world."

"I envision the novel not only as responding and contributing to the situation of colonialism but also as part of a large-scale movement, collective rather than individual, to imagine the form of the empire," wrote Koenigsberger in his book's preface.

"The novel is a complete and enclosed thing. The realistic novel is held to represent a whole world or way of life," stated Koenigsberger. In a similar way, the exotic displays were not complete without a wide range of animals from afar and of course needed the elephant—often described by showmen as a "keynote beast" for a collection - to make it whole.

"In its tents, arenas, enclosures and caravans, the zoological collection managed both alien beasts and their meanings as it advertised, described and mounted a range of exotic displays that evoked and delineated a burgeoning empire," wrote Koenigsberger.

"We are accustomed to thinking about the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen as very local and English; but even in their novels, you can see the larger world gestured toward. The small world that is in the foreground depends for its very existence on this global environment."

Much of what he uncovered in his research resonates today as zoos, museum collections and novels continue to play a role in helping us to understand our world and to collapse imaginative distance. Many of our leisure-time activities are still tied to understanding a global environment through these exhibits and are reflected in what we find between the covers of a novel, he said.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, June 11, 2007 01:56 AM | News Topics: Arts & Entertainment, Authors, College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research

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