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Author of the Month: Neil Hultgren

Published: July 1, 2014

Melodramatic Imperial Writing from the Sepoy Rebellion to Cecil Rhodes

Neil Hultgren, Associate Professor, English

For Neil Hultgren, the very meaning of the word “melodrama” has changed over time. “It has turned into a cliché. ‘Don’t be so melodramatic’,” Hultgren observed. Hultgren explores the history behind the cliché in his book Melodramatic Imperial Writing from the Sepoy Rebellion to Cecil Rhodes, published this year by Ohio University Press. The book sees 19th-century British melodrama as a vital aspect of literature that underscores the contradictions and injustices of British imperialism. Hultgren hardly sees melodrama as a quaint or outdated kind of writing. “Many American movies, especially the action kind, are infused with melodramatic aesthetics,” Hultgren said. “Where the Victorians wanted overwhelming outbursts of emotion, in American action movies, melodrama takes the form of wisecracks. Victorian theater is often denigrated for its obsession with special effects, but we are just as obsessed with special effects today. That’s a big carryover we don’t often talk about.” Hultgren feels that the survival of melodrama testifies to the continuing intensity of the precarious balance between sincerity and irony. In his book, Hultgren argues that the melodramatic mode enabled Victorian writers to upset narratives of British imperial destiny and racial superiority. Though often seen as a blunt aesthetic tool tainted by its reliance on improbable situations and overwhelming emotions, 19th-century melodrama was actually an important ingredient of British propaganda. Yet, through its impact on many late-Victorian genres outside the theater, melodrama developed a complicated relationship with British imperial discourse. To trace this new and complex connection between British imperialism and the melodramatic mode in late-Victorian writing, Hultgren explores a range of texts from Charles Dickens’ writing about the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India to William Ernest Henley’s imperial poetry and Olive Schreiner’s experimental South African fiction. The roots of melodrama can be found just before the 19th century, Hultgren recalled. “It was all the rage for the first 60 years of the 19th century. Although its theatrical popularity began to fade, the melodrama migrated to other genres, ending up in novels and in poetry and in journalism. There were even melodramatic political writings,” he said. “By century’s end, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw still

Author of the Month-Neil Hultgren

were using melodrama. This book resists the idea promoted by other critics that melodrama had died out by the end of the 19th century.” He added, “The Victorians are lambasted for being sincere, but melodrama represented their most concentrated effort to understand the difficult issue of imperialism. Melodrama can be useful in the way it paints the times in vivid colors. The intensity of melodrama is one of the things the Victorians found interesting.” Hultgren has written on Wilkie Collins, H. Rider Haggard and Wilde, and his research has appeared in Literature Compass and Victorians Institute Journal. He received his B.A. from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and his M.A. and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, the latter in 2007. He recently returned from a one-semester sabbatical and is beginning work on a project that explores mysticism and the idea of universal truth in late 19th-century romances.