Working at the intersection of literary sociology and affect theory, this essay considers the rise of interest as an organizing principle in the American school system at the turn of the twentieth century, alongside the fixation on disgust in the period's literature. Although student-centered pedagogy has now pervaded educational discourse for more than one hundred years, it was not entirely intuitive or necessary that the modern school system at its inception should orient the classroom experience around the interests and inclinations of students. If educators at the time, especially John Dewey, found in interest a key structuring device for the expansion of the school system, novelists like Frank Norris cultivated a literature of disgust in order to think through the limits of that school system, to mark the system's boundaries. And yet, far from inhibiting or restricting the kinds of emotions students experience, the reintegration of these novels into the twentieth-century classroom in fact signals a further broadening of the school's emotional palate. Battered corpses and rat feces may continue to remain outside the scope of the high school curriculum, but the novelistic representation of battered corpses and rat feces has proved an uncontroversial, if not welcome, addition to lesson plans across the country. This essay argues that literary disgust has irrevocably shaped institutional feeling—how students feel in schools and how schools train students to feel.
edward morgan day frank is a PhD candidate in English at Stanford University. His dissertation, “Schools of Fiction,” argues that American literature played a central role in the development of the modern educational system at the turn of the twentieth century.
Edward Morgan Day Frank; Interest, Disgust. Novel 1 August 2017; 50 (2): 197–216. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-4150223
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