Colloquium | James Chandler

Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 12:00pm

James Chandler

Melodrama after Sentiment: Adventures in Media Crossing

It has been almost forty years since Peter Brooks released his pathbreaking and influential book, The Melodramatic Imagination:  Balzac, Henry James, and the Mode of Excess (1975). Over these decades, melodrama has not only undergone critical rehabilitation; it has also become perhaps the most important category for linking twentieth-century cinema with the century that came before. But melodrama's mode of excess has deep connections with a still earlier sentimental mode that features emotion mediated by reciprocal sympathy. The sentimental both set the conditions for melodrama's emergence around the time of the French Revolution and continued to co-exist with melodrama through nineteenth-century fiction and into the age of cinema. The kind of story Brooks wishes to tell, in short, becomes richer and more complex when melodrama's manichaean extremes of character, gesture, and style are understood to evolve from, and with, the mixed and moderating effects of "putting oneself in the place of the other." The paper concludes with a close look at D.W. Griffith's celebrated refashioning of Dickens in the formative years of Hollywood's classical narrative system, especially in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).

James Chandler is Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English at The University of Chicago. He is Director of the Franke Institute for the Humanities, Founder and Director of the Center for Disciplinary Innovation, and Chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. His research interests include British and Irish literature since the early Enlightenment, American cinema, and the relationship of literary criticism to film criticism. England in 1819 (Chicago, 1998), his study of literary historicism and its limits, won the Laing Prize in 2000. Recent books include The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature (2009) and An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago, 2013), which traces the formal foundations of modern narrative cinema to the early sentimentalist moment of literature and moral philosophy. He has written recent essays on Seamus Heaney, Laurence Sterne, Irish historical cinema, Wordsworth, melodrama, contemporary Irish-American poetry, the sentimental as an aesthetic category, and the question of public humanities. He is currently at work on a book about practical criticism in literature and cinema.

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