March 21 STS Colloquium Cannon Schmitt

Soft Water: A Metaphor and its Vicissitudes

a special joint event co-sponsored by Oecologies

4.30-6 pm, BuTo 1197

Cannon Schmitt (University of Toronto)

Professor of English; Associate Director Ph.D.

B.A. (Oberlin College), M.A., Ph.D. (Indiana)


Cannon Schmitt is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. His primary teaching and research field is Victorian literature and culture, with a particular focus on cultural studies of science, especially evolutionary theory; the novel and narrative theory; and the novel and the sea. In his first book, Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), Schmitt argues that Gothic novels pose as semi-ethnographic texts, representing Continental Europe, the Far East, or Ireland as fundamentally un-English, sites of depravity. At the same time, they elaborate a concept of Englishness in which, paradoxically, a threatened female figure stands in for the globe’s then most powerful nation. In Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Schmitt investigates the Victorian engagement with South America as a site of memory. Because of the paramount role of evolutionary theory in that engagement, he attends to the works of a group of remarkable natural historians who travelled there and wrote about what they discovered: Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Kingsley, and W. H. Hudson. In their different ways, all these men encountered South America as and through memory; all parlayed that encounter into narratives about savagery and civility, race and the origins of humanity. At present he is at work on a SSHRC-funded book project tentatively titled The Literal Sea in which he hypothesizes that the ocean and its associated phenomena—tides, prevailing winds, marine engineering, ships under sail—constitute a privileged locus of the literal in Victorian fiction. In a recent article, for example, he treats Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an exemplary instance of fiction deploying a specialized maritime lexicon, contending that its precise articulation of tidal currents, nautical manoeuvres, and ship design signals the key role of “restraint” in that novella and throughout Conrad’s corpus—as well as the need for the development of a literal mode of reading that gives unwonted attention to technical and denotative language in fiction. With Elaine Freedgood, he co-edited a special issue of Representations on the possibility of such a mode of reading: Denotatively, Technically, Literally (2014). A former editor of Criticism who continues to serve on the journal’s Editorial Board, he is also a founding member of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) and served for six years (2008-14) as Canadian representative on NAVSA’s Advisory Board.