Smith Expert on 17th and 18th Century Literature

Courtney Weiss Smith, assistant professor of English, will teach an upper-level seminar on 18th Century poetry, and a class cross-listed with the Science in Society Program next year. She recently celebrated her first year teaching at Wesleyan. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Assistant Professor Courtney Weiss Smith is finishing up her first year in the English Department, where she shares with students her enthusiasm for 18th century English poetry, literature and culture.

A native of St. Louis, Mo., Smith earned a B.A. from the University of Dayton and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. She originally intended to study the 19th Century novel in graduate school, but became increasingly drawn to earlier literature of the 17th and 18th Centuries. “I was curious where these 19th Century novels came from,” Smith remarks. “I became fascinated by the novelistic experiments of the 18th Century. Then I started thinking about what preceded and influenced these—the new kinds of scientific and economic prose, the strange, not-quite-novelistic fictional forms, the unexpected genres of poetry.”

Before coming to Wesleyan, Smith taught for one year in the English and Foundations of the Liberal Arts departments at Transylvania University, a small liberal arts school in Lexington, Ky.

She taught four courses in Wesleyan’s English department over the past year.
“I taught the gateway to the English major, ‘Ways of Reading: Literature About Literature.’ We explored some fundamental theoretical questions about what literature is and what it does in our lives. I also taught a class called, ‘Circulating Bodies: Commodities, Prostitutes and Slaves in 18th Century England.’ This period saw the emergence and institutionalization of a robust consumer culture and early capitalism. It’s really interesting to see how these changes influenced the ways people thought about the very boundaries between people and things,” Smith says. Her other courses were the “The Rise of the Novel” and “The ‘Modern’ 18th Century: Science, Consumer Culture, Individuality, and the Enlightenment.”

Next year, Smith will teach two new courses in the English Department: an upper-level seminar on 18th Century poetry, and a class cross-listed with the Science in Society Program called “Science and/as Literature.”

She says of the latter course: “We’re going to look at the 17th and 18th centuries—the great age of what people call the ‘Scientific Revolution.’ We’ll consider how scientists like John Locke and Isaac Newton drew on literature and how literary writers reacted to the sciences—what they found exciting about it, and what they found terrifying.”

Smith is very impressed with the Wesleyan students she has taught. “The students at Wesleyan are wonderful. They’re smart, engaged, hard working, and have lots of big ideas. It’s been really fun working with them so far.”

She adds, “I think many students don’t know a lot about 18th Century England when they come into my classes, so it’s rewarding to introduce them to texts that they might not have run across otherwise.”

Asked if she has a favorite writer from the period, Smith says it would be impossible to choose just one.

“I love everything by Jonathan Swift—his fierce satires, his playful poetry. I think Alexander Pope’s poems are beautifully crafted, sometimes hilarious and always smart. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones are two of my favorite novels. And I can’t forget Anne Finch’s beautiful nature poetry,” she says.

Smith is currently working on her first book project, titled, Empiricist Devotions: Scrutinizing Nature in Early 18th Century England.

“As I said, the late 17th and early 18th century was a crucial period for modern science. This meant people began really scrutinizing nature, using microscopes and doing experiments to understand how it worked. My project explores popular science—but also economics, religion, and poetry—to figure out how empiricist ideas impacted the ways people looked at and found meaning in the world around them,” she says.

Smith is also co-editing, with Kate Parker, a collection of essays, titled, Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered. “This book is trying to put poetry seriously in conversation with novels, and think across genres about important aspects of literary and cultural history,” she says, adding that the expected publication date is in late 2013.

In addition, Smith has two articles being published this summer in the journals Studies in English Literature and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.

She is also involved in helping Dean Andrew Curran to plan a conference of the Northeastern American Society for 18th Century Studies, which will be held at Wesleyan on Oct. 11-14. Students are welcome to attend panels and talks during the conference.

In her free time, Smith enjoys running and practicing yoga, as well as “cooking—or trying to cook,” she jokes. Smith says she also loves TV, and names Mad Men, Community, Project Runway and Top Chef among her favorite shows.