As Swift and Dirty as History: The Dark Side

(More Intro: What I will be studying… Shakespeare through a Postcolonial lens)


In the “On the Grand Tour” letter to William James, Henry James also says another very telling quote: “I’ve seen the Tiber hurrying along, as swift and dirty as history.” This excerpt can be taken in many ways, but I want to delve into the darker implications of this quote and how it relates to me traveling abroad. Allow me to frame this by drawing from another Henry James letter, “London at Midsummer.”

In “London at Midsummer,” he talks about how “the stranger–the American at least–who find himself in the company of a number of Englishmen assembled for a convivial purpose becomes conscious of an indefinable and delectable something which, for want of a better name, he is moved to call their superior richness of temperament.” He goes on to say that the “indefinable and delectable something” can only occur in an old society that has a deep historic identity. In relation to England, America is so young. That is what makes England so “great,” if you will. Henry James attributes this historic greatness of England to the “great part England has played in human affairs, the great space she has occupied, her tremendous might, her far-stretching rule.”

This is so true, and truth can be a double-edged sword. The British Empire is said to be the empire on which the sun never sets because its rule was so wide. That last statement by James, “her tremendous might, her far-stretching rule” hints at what I plan on studying while at the University of Oxford, namely, postcolonial literature (particularly, Shakespeare’s play[s] through a postcolonial theoretical lens). Postcolonialism is a broad genre of literature that relates to the relationship between the colonizer (such as England or France or Spain) and how they impact the lives of the colonized (such as India, Nigeria, or St. Lucia, for example). England’s “greatness” inherently depended on them often times dehumanizing and using others. In other words, their greatness came with a cost, and often times that cost was exploiting people of a darker hue, just like me (African-American). Other great writers, such as Derek Walcott, who wrote Omeros, talked about this darker side of colonization in his famous postcolonial epic. He is a St. Lucian poet who has an ambivalence towards the “greatness” of England. When he sees that “greatness,” he also sees the pain and despair of his ancestors. As great and magnificent as England is, with its deep history and ancient buildings, there is a darker side to this all, and I will be studying that this summer.

I will also be also be taking a class with a professor from Mississippi State (Dr. Ben Harvey), who will be teaching all of us from the MSU Honors College Studying Abroad. This class will be about art history, and we will be learning about how history has been preserved throughout the ages (photography, sculpture, museums, memorials), and that will be very interesting. I am an English and Philosophy Double Major, and have never taken a class like this one. The other class I will be taking at the University of Oxford will be an Oxbridge Tutorial with a fellow from the University of Oxford (that is the postcolonial class, focusing on Shakespeare in particular). I am looking forward to these two classes very much…


Field Brown


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