For many years before I joined the faculty here at Washington University in St. Louis, I lived in Philadelphia, where I curated several multimedia exhibits about James Joyce for the Rosenbach Museum & Library while completing my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. The experience of putting together these exhibits—of building a cohesive story about Joyce's years in Paris, for example, out of manuscripts, faded letters, tattered magazines, and old photographs alongside visual and audio presentations of the vibrant artistic community that sprung up in the City of Lights after the Great War—had a profound effect on the ways in which I continue to imagine possibilities for narrating literary history.
Literature is central to the human quest for meaning. It’s a unique vehicle for finding ourselves, for navigating our course in an often confusing and complex world. Because it speaks to our imagination, literature allows us to approach the moral, ethical, social, and political dilemmas of the human situation in an integrated way. The beautiful and the well-argued, the felt and the reasoned, the actual and the possible, the message and the medium: students of literature—undergraduates, graduates, and professors—do not treat these spheres as distinct aspects of human existence. In our department, they bring them together.