This summer, Dr. Peter Katz, professor of English and new director of the Honors program, accompanied a group of Honors program students on a study tour to London, UK. These students were taking HNRS 380: London Streets. In this course they learned about Victorian politics and life in London, considering the ethics and obligations of seeing poverty (then and now).
Now that they have returned from their European jaunt, Dr. Katz graciously accepted our request to guest blog about his incredible summer experience.
“I am starting my fifth year as a teacher in the English department, and my first year as Honors Director. (I was also an Honors student at PUC from 2006-2010.) My scholarship focuses on empathy and emotion, particularly through Victorian literature and culture; my teaching focuses on pretty much whatever needs teaching, though somehow it will end up being about empathy and emotion (and animals). I love coffee, martial arts, and animals, though usually not simultaneously. London Streets was my first abroad tour as a professor, and I think it changed me just about as much as it did the Honors students.”
In Defense of Victorian Optimism
By: Peter Katz
I completely missed him.
I’d like to think I was concerned with my students’ safety, was looking at my phone to find a route to our next destination.
But that’s probably untrue.
More likely, as I’ve trained myself to do, I skipped over him as part of the scenery.
But Sarah didn’t.
Can we get him some food? He looks really bad.
Open sores. Brittle, skeletal. Homeless.
For the last three weeks, the six students of HNRS 380: London Streets had walked the alleys of Victorian London. They waited beside a young Dickens with his father in Marshalsea Prison. They crowded into the cloying humidity of the attic operating theater in St. Thomas’ Hospital and witnessed the frantic amputations in a race against infection. They stood over the cesspool where the 1854 Cholera epidemic began, scoured the streets with Dr. John Snow as he wrapped his head around a new theory of disease transmission.
New institutions lunged up from the cultural fabric, bent and warped the channels through which the city’s bodies flowed. New feelings, new modes of embodiment became possible, even as those structures altered or cut off old formulations—sometimes for the benefit of the working people, sometimes not.
This is a value-neutral statement. One of my favorite mantras before I describe how those institutions changed feelings and bodies. Neither inherently good, nor bad. Value-neutral.
Sarah is always driven. We joke that she finishes the course readings before I’ve finalized the syllabus.
I’ve never seen her as focused as she was in that moment. She parted the clotted streets of Camden Town with the precision that would make a Victorian surgeon weep. Straight to a coffee shop with premade sandwiches and bottled drinks as though the crowd didn’t exist. She fired off a prescription:
Protein. Handed me a sandwich.
Rang it up. Back to the streets, back through the crowd.
Stop. Spinning, intent, distraught.
Where did he go?
For better or worse, one of my other favorite teacher phrases is: now this is an argument, so feel free to push back. History should be contentious. It should challenge our assumptions, pick apart our received knowledge. I don’t give dates and names. I give arguments.
Now, this is an argument, so feel free to push back: institutions are inherently value-neutral. They’re a historically continent attempt to address the pressures of population-dense urban centers, of increasingly complex pecuniary and social economies.
Victorian institutions create problems, to be sure. We shrank before the physical restraints in Bedlam psychiatric hospital. We cringed as the Salvation Army celebrated military metaphors like “opening fire” to describe their social work. We balked as the hospital transformed patients into statistics and problems to solve.
But they also fix problems. Bedlam begins conversations about the expression of psychological pain, begins to embrace the infinite multiplicity of human experience. The Salvation Army insists that the poor matter, propels the welfare state to its (European) prominence, protects the poor more than laissez-faire ever could. The hospital defeats cholera, extends life-expectancy, heals and helps anyone in need.
The Victorians had their problems: the Empire, horrific misogyny, paternalistic classism.
But no one can say they didn’t care.
Victorian fiction of the 1880s stages a three-way battle between unbridled capitalism, socialism, and liberal reform. The capitalists rarely earn a voice in these texts; their ideology is just fundamentally broken.
The real debate occurs between the socialists and the liberals. The socialists argue that the system is broken and requires a complete overhaul to fix. Anything short of that is a waste of energy at best, or worse, a secret tool of the capitalists. They’re earnest, sincere. The city is broken, and they want to scrap it and start again.
The liberal protagonists of these texts present an argument that feels naïve. The system, the city, is sprawling, an often indomitable mass too large to get hands or heads around. The system is broken.
But, as Valentine of Children of Gibeon rebukes her brother, “Go away and rail at Competition, while we look after its victims.”
If we care hard enough about each individual person, the liberals argue, we might not fix the system—but we’ll fix that person, if only for a while. And if we all care, and all help, maybe the city can fix itself.
Is it naïve? Maybe. Is it optimistic? Perhaps. Beautiful? Absolutely.
We find him. He’s trying on a new pair of shoes someone had dropped.
I look away. It feels like a violation of his privacy to watch—a violation of a concept completely unavailable to him.
He finishes, slumps back down against the lamppost. Sarah gives him food. We walk away.
Back to the coffee shop, where some of the other students wait. They talk about the stores around them. Laugh, joke, show each other things on their phones.
Except for Sarah. She stands, stares unseeing into the wall as she drinks. She is very definitely not crying. Neither am I.
I manage to catch her eye. And as we give each other a reassuring hug, I’m quite sure we’re hugging him as well.