The Politics of Print

English doctoral candidate Marissa Nicosia explores historical literary genres.
May 1, 2013

Have you ever been sucked into reading the tabloids while waiting in line at the grocery store? Fifth-year English doctoral candidate Marissa Nicosia reads them, too—but the ones she’s looking at are from the 17th century.

They’re part of an area of the archives that hasn’t garnered much attention in literary studies. Nicosia spends a chapter of her dissertation, “Genre and Crisis: Print, Politics, and the Transformation of 17th-Century Literature,” examining the way in which tropes of the history play were imported into tiny five-act plays called playlets.

Unlike traditional history plays, which feature great historical figures of the past, the playlets dealt with current events, were only four to eight pages long, and were sold alongside news periodicals. “Why haven’t we read them much, when we do have them?” Nicosia says. “Some people say it’s because they’re bad literature. But I don’t have a problem reading bad literature. They sold at a very brisk pace, and must have been quite popular in order for anyone to bother writing these things.”

Nicosia’s work focuses on literature in the mid-17th century, when poetry was still the language of the state and heavy hitters such as John Milton, John Dryden, and Andrew Marvell were enmeshed in the bureaucracy of government. Nicosia argues that historical literary genres—the history, the romance, the elegy—underwent dramatic transformation in the era, and it was not only the political culture that was formative, but the ways these genres were printed—their publication history and circulation—that was fundamental to reshaping literature in that century.

What readers did with their literature after they acquired it is another element of print culture Nicosia studies. There’s a copy of the Restoration-era satire The Rehearsal in Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, for instance, that contains the centuries-old scribblings of a reader who wanted to make it clear that he or she understood the satire. “So for any jab at John Dryden, the reader has written ‘Dryden’ next to it. The reader is picking out all the public figures, and relating something to a poem by Andrew Marvell, and something else to a particular lord. Really just outlining the whole thing.”

In addition to research, Nicosia teaches undergraduates, and sharing finds like The Rehearsal with her students is integral to her approach. For two semesters she taught “London Calling,” an undergraduate critical writing seminar about the city of London from Chaucer to the Clash. Nicosia encouraged archival engagement and performance exercises to help students deepen their understanding of the subject matter: “I do a lot of things in my teaching to try to shake up the ways students think about literature.”

For example, when she brings undergraduates into contact with old books—digitally and then in person—the materiality itself can change students’ relationships to what they’re studying. “It’s the multiple ways of looking at the same cultural object that can lead them to their own individual research questions.” Nicosia says, “When students perform different versions of the same scene in something like Hamlet, they absorb the play’s interpretive open-endedness. It can’t be just zombie Hamlet and then, like, normal Hamlet. It has to be Gertrude killed Hamlet Senior, or she was very involved in it. Or Gertrude wasn’t involved—that kind of choice can really change a scene.”

The relationship between teaching and scholarship is something Nicosia hopes to explore on a larger scale in the future. Heading into what could be her final year of dissertation work, and beginning to think about the next phase of her academic career, Nicosia learned of the Rare Book School's Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography in The New York Times. Created through a grant the Rare Book School in Virginia received from the Mellon Foundation, the new program will bring together early-stage scholars throughout the humanities. Nicosia is one of the inaugural fellows.

“It was a very intense application, and I’m just thrilled I got in,” she says. “This in-depth training will enable us to think about ways we can work with one another across disciplines to improve research and teaching. Given that humanities centers and digital humanities centers are on the rise, this kind of collaborative scholarship comes at a crucial moment in academia.”

As part of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography, she will also put together a symposium within the next three years. “It’s a chance to introduce methods I was trained in at Penn and at Rare Books School to a new population,” Nicosia says, “I’m excited to use what I learn in my scholarship, in my teaching, and in my life as a public intellectual to really contribute to public life.”