If you were to organize a graduate seminar around a single text what would it be?

Jonathan M. Hess

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Two decades ago, while I was finishing my PhD in comparative literature, I fantasized about prospective employers asking me this question. Trained in the heyday of high theory and schooled in the virtues of close reading, I was prepared to suggest any number of texts whose rhetorical, formal, and philosophical complexity made them prime candidates for intensive study in a graduate seminar. Given the directions that the field and my own work have gone in over the last twenty years, structuring a seminar around a single text holds somewhat less appeal for me today. Indeed, my recent work has moved away from the model of close reading, whether exploring the vast body of popular fiction produced by Jews for Jews in nineteenth-century Germany or studying how performances of Jewishness on the nineteenth-century stage helped give rise to cultures of liberal universalism.

Rather than dedicating a seminar to close analysis of one text, I would organize a seminar on the transnational performance history of the most popular German play of the late nineteenth century, and a text that, tellingly, no one ever suggested I read while I was in graduate school: Salomon Hermann Mosenthal's Deborah (1849). When it first took German stages by storm in the 1850s, Mosenthal's melodrama was dismissed and despised by both the literary elite and official organs of Jewish community life. But Deborah became for Jews and non-Jews in nineteenth- century Europe and America the most popular drama on a Jewish theme and a favorite vehicle for celebrity actresses and aspiring stars alike. Deborah was translated into thirteen languages, including English, where it was known primarily as Leah, The Forsaken, but also as Miriam, Naomi, Ruth, Hager, and Lysiah, The Abandoned. The seminar would certainly involve close reading, depending on students' linguistic skills, of German, English, American, and other adaptations of Deborah. But students would read these texts against the backdrop of the Czech opera Debora, the American burlesque Leah, The Forsook, the British novel Leah, The Jewish Maiden, and at least one of the three silent films based on Deborah. Focusing on the cultural mobility of this material, I would accompany readings of texts with close readings of responses to performances of Deborah in the nineteenth-century press. I would introduce all this material with a survey of key precursors, from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Lessing's Nathan the Wise, and Richard Cumberland's The Jew to selections from Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and scenes from Fromental Halévy and Eugène Scribe's grand opera La juive. Recent work in theater history and performance studies would give the course its theoretical interlocutors—and its rationale for supplementing the sacrosanct model of close reading that was so crucial to the way an entire generation of literary scholars was trained.