This essay explains the rationale behind a willfully anachronistic creative writing prompt: if one of the British Romantics were alive today, how would he or she craft a literary response to 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror? Instead of asking what makes the twenty-first-century experience of terror new, my assignment encourages students to approach today’s affective environment through the medium of British Romantic literature. The following discussion offers a pedagogical framework and theoretical justification for inviting undergraduates to map the untimely affects that fuse the contemporary age of terror with its Romantic-era double. The essay concludes with a survey of exemplary student work.
Affect in the Age of Terror
1. In what way does Edward Snowden’s story read like an updated version of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams? If Samuel Taylor Coleridge had composed “Fears in Solitude” during the April 2013 manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers, how would the poem change? How would Ann Radcliffe dramatize the experience of encountering an unattended bag while waiting at the airport? These are only a few of the questions that students considered in their final creative projects for my Hampshire College seminar on “Literature in the Age of Terror.”  The assignment asked them to compose a poem or short narrative that addresses our contemporary situation in the voice or characteristic literary style of a Romantic-era writer. Or as I put it in my willfully anachronistic prompt: if one of the British Romantics were alive today, how would he or she craft a literary response to 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror?
2. Instead of assigning a traditional analytic essay in which students might compare the concerns of British Romantic literature and culture with those of our twenty-first-century moment, I invited the class to write in a creative mode. The approach let them tap into the affective registers of historical consciousness that eludes analytic writing, or so Thomas Pfau’s Romantic Moods leads me to argue. To guide their efforts, I had everyone transpose their present perspectives into the idiom of Romantic literature. Imitating the voice of a Romantic-era writer provided a methodology for estranging one’s affective environment and thereby making it newly available for analysis. The resulting exercise enabled students to produce what Jonathan Flatley terms an “affective map” of the attunement between past and present.
3. The seminar drew on British Romantic literature as a medium for reflecting on our emotional life in the present. Instead of asking what makes the twenty-first-century experience of terror new, I posed a different question: where have we already seen our own range of moods and structures of feeling before? Toward this end, I led the class through a series of texts—among them, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1816)—that are fascinated by how impersonal historical forces condition one’s moods, sentiments, and visceral sensations. These readings served, in turn, as the occasion to put British anxieties about the French “Reign of Terror” and subsequent Napoleonic Wars into dialogue with America’s cultural response to 9/11. My goal was to reframe the age of terror as doubly contemporary, which is to say both characteristic of the present and simultaneous with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
4. To borrow Walter Scott’s comment from the “Dedicatory Epistle” to Ivanhoe, I encouraged students to search for the “extensive neutral ground” between past and present (18). At the same time, my comparative approach relied on the otherness of Romantic-era literature to reorient or even disorient our intuitive understanding of things as they are, to borrow Godwin’s phrase. Oscillating between affinity and alterity, the seminar routed today’s affective attachments through the foreignness of the past while simultaneously foregrounding an abiding archive of intensities that were set into motion by British Romantic literature. My underling premise was that category of affect could enable a pivot (or series of pivots) between the Romantic and the contemporary. Consistent with the notoriously unsettled meaning of the word “affect,” my use of the term indicates a broad array of felt experiences that warp the cognition of time.
5. The following essay describes the pedagogical rationale behind my course’s untimely treatment of “Literature in the Age of Terror.” To begin, I explain my strategies for juxtaposing our contemporary age of terror with its Romantic-era double. From there, I draw on the work of Thomas Pfau and Jonathan Flatley to justify my core methodology: constructing a comparative archive of affective intensities to calibrate the interplay between British Romantic literature and culture and our post-9/11 moment. The essay concludes by assessing the writing that my students completed for their final projects.
I. Teaching the Romantic with the contemporary
6. At the outset of the semester, my first task was to persuade the class that it makes sense to study late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature alongside the contemporary. To establish a connection between these two seemingly disparate moments, I turned to Marc Redfield’s The Rhetoric of Terror, which argues that
7. Building on this point, I invited students to compare our current geopolitical situation with that of the Romantic authors we were reading. For instance, I called their attention to the time that elapsed between William Wordsworth’s travels in France during the early 1790s and his eventual description of those experiences in the 1805 Prelude. What does Wordsworth’s belated reflection on the French Revolution have to teach us about our own evolving response to the trauma of 9/11, I asked? Likewise, I proposed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer a twenty-first-century parallel for the Napoleonic Wars that contextualize Jane Austen’s Persuasion. In this light, Austen’s novel provides an opportunity to consider the personal costs of the protracted military conflicts that define our moment.
8. To complement the discussion, I introduced students to scholarship that implicitly or explicitly affirms Romanticism’s bearing on the present. We began the semester by considering Terry Castle’s thought-provoking observations about the continuity between visual representations of 9/11 and the history of art that finds sublimity in scenes of destruction. Through John Barrell’s account of the British obsession with imagining political violence during the mid-1790s, we saw the makings of twenty-first-century arguments both for and against government surveillance and other anti-terrorism measures. Jan Mieszkowski’s analysis of Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude” prompted a conversation about the patriotic rhetoric that followed 9/11 and the Boston marathon bombing. What David Clark describes as Kant’s wariness about celebrating military victory also raises hard questions about the riotous celebrations that took place on American college campuses following the May 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden.
9. All of these conversations reinforced the point that Romanticism functions as an anachronism in Jerome Christensen’s (or for that matter, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s) sense of the term: namely, a “potent icon of the past’s incapacity to coincide with itself, to seal itself off as a period or epoch or episode with no or necessary consequences for our time. Anachronism is the herald of the future as yet unknown” (3). Christensen’s formulation usefully challenged the class’s tendency to assume that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are over and done with. Instead, he suggests that Romanticism cannot be walled off behind the perfected closure of the past. As with all writing, the definitive meaning of British Romantic literature has yet to be written; its history remains in process and open to future reinterpretation.
II. Creative imitation assignment
10. In keeping with the seminar’s embrace of anachronism as a strategy for bringing British Romantic literature into the present, while simultaneously filtering contemporary life through the otherness of the past, I gave students a purposefully anachronistic prompt for their final assignment: if one of the British Romantics were alive today, how would he or she craft a literary response to 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror? The challenge was to imagine how Ann Radcliffe, for example, might react to our own time. The unorthodox prompt invited the class to compose a creative work that addresses the repercussions of 9/11 in the voice or characteristic style of a Romantic-era writer. But why ask students to write in a creative mode instead of composing a traditional, analytic essay? Furthermore, how does literary imitation give students a fresh perspective on the present? What’s to be gained by using Romantic literature to remediate our contemporary situation?
11. My response to the first question expands upon arguments put forward in Thomas Pfau’s Romantic Moods. In light of Pfau’s discussion, I take the view that creative writing makes it possible for students to tap into the affective registers of historical consciousness that cannot quite be put into propositional statements. Drawing on Kant and Heidegger, Pfau theorizes what he terms the mood of history, which “speaks—if only circumstantially—to the deep-structural situatedness of individuals within history as something never actually intelligible to them in fully coherent, timely, and definitive form” (7). In Pfau’s account, mood channels the latent force of historical events that otherwise elude conscious understanding. Rather than look to “what may be logically verified and discursively represented as knowledge,” Pfau contends that history’s power makes itself felt on a visceral level. Indeed, Pfau maintains that an affective understanding of one’s historical condition cannot be properly represented or pinned down (10). To adapt a remark from Favret, mood “offers up symptoms of a history not entirely possessed” (146). Applying Pfau’s discussion to my own pedagogy, I deemphasized assignments that required students to explicitly define their historical situatedness in favor of offering creative writing as a practice that let the class access an otherwise inchoate spirit of our age.
12. If anything, college-age students in 2016 are primed to reflect on the affective tenor of historical experience. After all, they were only in kindergarten or first grade—five or six years old,—when the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks occurred. Experiencing 9/11 and its aftermath from a child’s perspective gives today’s young people an intuitive understanding of the visceral yet elusive force of historical events that are felt more than understood.
13. But why should my class’s efforts to mobilize the affective dimension of historical consciousness take the form of a literary imitation, as I stipulate in my assignment? Building on Jonathan Flatley’s notion of Affective Mapping, I argue that the work of emulating a historical literary style can estrange one’s affective environment while simultaneously activating the felt relation between past and present. According to Flatley, affective mapping serves as “a technology for the representation to oneself of one’s own historically conditioned and changing affective life” (7). The procedure works through self-estrangement:
14. To give Flatley’s discussion a concrete pedagogical application, I asked my classes to imitate a Romantic-era author on the syllabus. On the one hand, doing so made our “now” resemble the otherness of a “then.” On the other hand, the reverse is also true, in that any movement away from our “own” moment and into the Romantic period eventually makes a circuitous return to the moods and affects that define the present as much as the past. Through their writing project, students hereby produced maps or mappings in the sense of calibrating the resonance between Romanticism’s structure of feeling and our contemporary mood. As Flatley aptly observes, “we never experience an affect for the first time; every affect contains within it an archive of its previous objects” (81). My goal was to provide students with a framework for charting the age of terror that inflects both the Romantic and the contemporary.
III. The affect of uncertain times
15. The result was a wealth of thought-provoking work examining what Mary Favret describes as the affect of everyday war. Students gravitated to Austen’s Persuasion, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho as touchstones for mapping the changing contours of daily life in the aftermath of 9/11. Channeling an array of affects that ranged from the banal to the phantasmatic, regret to dread, curiosity to paranoid anxiety, the class used their creative writing to investigate the feeling of being adrift in uncertain times. In the double sense of that last phrase, my students’ projects suggested that the War on Terror has disoriented their sense of time and destabilized their sense of certainty.
16. To understand how students went about capturing the echoes of war in everyday life, consider the work of Hillary Lynch, who rewrote Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude” as if it were composed during the April 2013 manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers. Aptly retitled “Fears in Collective Solitude,” Lynch’s poetic imitation explores the strange time that Bostonians spent “sheltering in place”:
They all wait alone, together, breath held.
Sitting in a unique situation
Contemplating on what should ne’er be thought.
A day off, not by choice, is a strange sight,
Dogs stop barking, kids stop laughing, silence.
Blooming flowers falter without water,
Facing towards the sky, looking for answers. (unpublished essay)
17. The spectacle of war has no less of an effect on the phantasmagoria of our emotional lives, or so student Rae Purdom holds. Specifically, Purdom offers a Radcliffean meditation on the medium of television news, which simultaneously reports distant conflicts and evokes the ghostly presence of a lost love one. Purdom takes her inspiration from the scene in which Emily St. Aubert returns to the library of her recently deceased father. Coming upon her father’s armchair and an open book by one of his favorite authors, “the idea of him rose so distinctly to [Emily’s] mind,” writes Radcliffe, “that she almost fancied she saw him before her” (95). In Purdom’s version, the familiar easy chair faces a television tuned to CNN. As the stream of martial images washes over her, Purdom’s young protagonist, Jessica, recalls
18. Another distinctive feature of Purdom’s efforts to map the resonance between home life and a war zone is the gesture of conflating Vietnam, 9/11, and the “threat of imminent violence” into one long, interminable conflict. Purdom’s anachronistic thinking is just one example of the class’s broader interest in the affect of broken time. Fellow student Michael Samblas makes the point explicit in noting that like contemporary Americans, the characters of Austen’s Persuasion are caught between regretting the past and dreading the future:
19. Renata Anuhea Sebstad’s imitation of Austen raises the same issue. In her short story, Sebstad dramatizes a mother’s anxiety about a son who is stationed at the military base in Fort Hood, Texas. The Austenian element can be found in Sebstad’s choice to begin her story shortly before the first Fort Hood shooting incident of November 2009 and end just prior to the second mass shooting, which took place in April 2014. Much as Austen’s audience knew that Anne Elliot’s concluding “dread of a future war” would soon become a reality, Sebstad invites her reader to anxiously await an event that has not yet taken place within the diegetic universe of the narrative, thereby validating the protagonist’s overwhelming sense of foreboding. Through the modalities of apprehension and unease, both protagonist and reader intuit that the linear advance of time bends back on itself to form an untimely cycle of violence.
20. Ben Socolofsky picks up the thread again in adopting Radcliffe’s distinctive style of haunted consciousness to evoke the spectral afterlife of 9/11. Reimagining St. Aubert as a casualty of the World Trade Center collapse, Socolofsky follows his daughter, Emily, through the subsequent months of mourning. Of particular interest is Socolofsky’s dramatization of Emily’s post-traumatic encounter with the “Tribute in Light” art installation, which periodically projects two columns of light skyward from the former World Trade Center site. Unable to believe her eyes, Emily briefly wonders whether the Twin Towers are about to collapse all over again—a sense of déjà vu reinforced by a subsequent encounter with a doppelgänger of her dead father. Like Sebstad, Socolofsky explores the recursive temporality of life post-9/11 though the eerie affect of its uncanny repetitions.
21. Even as a number of students sought to elaborate on Favret’s claim that the affect of everyday war “eludes the usual models for organizing time such as linearity, punctuality, and periodicity,” others found that their experience of uncertain times did not raise issues of temporality so much as emphasize their sense of uncertainty (11). For one, Teddy S. Miller used Caleb Williams as a vehicle for experimenting with the affect of uncertainty. His piece tells the fictional story of Adael Goldman, a character charged with watching over the shrouded body of Osama bin Laden until it is interred at sea. Like Godwin’s protagonist, Caleb Williams, Adael is consumed by both curiosity and paranoia. On receiving strict orders not to look underneath the corpse’s shroud, Adael becomes obsessed with verifying the identity of the body with his own eyes. At the same time, Adael is unnerved by nagging questions about why he has been left alone with the dead man in the first place and whether he might be under some form of surveillance.
22. The tension between curiosity and paranoia comes to a head in the conclusion of Miller’s short story, which describes the thought process behind Adael’s resolution to keep bin Laden’s body covered:
23. Dominic Poropat’s imitation of Radcliffe’s Udolpho achieves similar results by using the device of the “explained supernatural” to prolong doubt and elicit anxiety. In Poropat’s hands, Radcliffe’s much-derided trope becomes a recurrent motif of everyday life post-9/11. To make the point, he dramatizes the experience of a young woman, who encounters an unattended bag while waiting at the airport. After the manner of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Poropat’s Radcliffean heroine imbues a commonplace object with supernatural powers and dread import. But unlike Austen, however, Poropat does without parody. In the era of “see something, say something” when everything is simultaneously a potential threat and nothing to be concerned about, Poropat intimates that we have little cause to mock the Radcliffean heroine’s tendency to overreact. His short story makes the point that 9/11 has introduced an element of anxious uncertainty into what we see and how we hear.
24. Despite Austen’s sendup of Udolpho, Poropat implies that we have all become Radcliffean subjects whose exaggerated suspicions and unsubstantiated fears are no laughing matter. When Poropat’s protagonist finally summons the courage to open the suspicious bag, it contains “nothing more than a few mundane travel items,” which she hands over to the lost and found. “Thirty minutes later,” Poropat concludes, “she boarded her plane and forgot all about that old, cracked leather bag.” The anticlimactic denouement works in part because 9/11 seems to have restored the visceral force of Radcliffe’s much-derided techniques for creating suspense. Paradoxical though it may sound, Poropat succeeds at capturing the specifically historical potency of Udolpho’s “explained supernatural” circa 1794 by bringing the trope into the twenty-first century. The resulting exploration simultaneously modernizes Radcliffe and backdates our present-day anxieties about the omnipresent yet unspecified threat of terrorism.
25. Poropat’s short narrative shares in the class’s collective effort to map the affective dimension of life in uncertain times. Mobilizing an array of affects that ranged from the banal to the phantasmatic, regret to dread, curiosity to paranoid anxiety, students used their creative writing as a vehicle for tapping into a tacit sense that the “War on Terror” has unmoored their sense of time and left them adrift in doubt. To do so, the class embraced anachronism. By addressing the legacy of 9/11 in the voice or literary style of a writer from the syllabus, students navigated the double contemporaneity that makes Romanticism both characteristic of the present and simultaneous with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the process, students began to channel the visceral power of historical experience that cannot quite be named.
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 Thank you to the students enrolled in the Spring 2014 course I taught at Hampshire College: Taylor Carlson, Nikolas Costello, Hillary Lynch, Christian May, Teddy S. Miller, Dominic Poropat, Rae Purdom, Michael Samblas, Renata Anuhea Sebstad, Ben Socolofsky, Sofia (last name withheld), and a student who wishes to remain anonymous. I am also grateful to Kate Singer for commenting on a draft of this essay as well as L. Brown Kennedy and Marc Redfield for their input on the seminar. BACK