University to celebrate ‘Frankenstein’
Washington University is set to begin its three-semester long commemoration of the 200-year anniversary of “Frankenstein” this fall.
Following more than two years of planning, the University unveiled the schedule of events for the celebration of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. While the book’s official anniversary isn’t until 2018, the University will hold a series of events beginning with the Sept. 6 Assembly Series lecture entitled “Which One is the Monster?” featuring playwright Nick Dear and Washington University professors Henry Schvey and Rebecca Messbarger.
Organized by associate professor of history Corinna Treitel, the bicentennial will provide a space for discussions pertinent to the University’s leadership in both the sciences and the humanities.
“There’s two big conversations that the novel allows us to have at Wash. U. One is about science and social responsibility. We’re a University that’s really a leader and heavily invested in STEM fields and medical field,” Treitel said. “The novel is often pulled into discussions about contemporary research, human-machine interfaces, treatment of research subjects, medical ethics—all those kinds of things. It’s a great way of bringing the humanities into dialogue with those pieces on campus.”
The novel, according to Treitel, also functions as a foundational text in the field of identity studies due to the text’s focus on the creature, regarded as the quintessential “other.”
“As all of these other disciplines try to theorize ‘otherness,’ the mechanisms by which difference is constructed, they’ve often gone back…to the novel and the ways in which the novel has been read to understand that process. It speaks to this conversation we’ve been having about diversity and inclusion. And of course, the novel really is about failure of inclusion,” Treitel said.
About five years ago, Treitel realized that the novel’s 200th anniversary was quickly approaching. A couple years later, she reached out to members of the Washington University community to gauge interest in planning events to commemorate the novel’s release. After receiving enthusiastic responses and commitments from the Center for the Humanities and other campus departments, the bicentennial events began to take shape.
Rebecca Wanzo, associate director for the Center for the Humanities and associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, discussed Treitel’s efforts to create interdisciplinary bicentennial events.
“[Treitel’s] goal was to try to bring as many departments into the bicentennial celebration as possible. Other departments decided to plan their own events—with our encouragement—but we are not as a group planning events,” Wanzo said. “While we have provided support in terms of logistics, funding and staff, the idea to make this a University-wide event over the course of several semesters and coordinate across departments was hers.”
Though five events have already been announced, several more are slated to come, including a film series and a Kemper Art Museum installation of “Frankenstein”-themed art. In addition, Treitel is organizing a campus-wide creative competition, wherein students can submit poetry, short stories and visual pieces that respond creatively to the novel with cash prizes to be awarded, according to Treitel.
The St. Louis Art Museum is working to create an event during the spring semester surrounding Glenn Ligon’s “Study for Frankenstein #1,” in which Ligon quotes directly from “Frankenstein” in a visual commentary on “otherness.” Ligon repeats the phrase, “Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again,” gradually obscuring legible text into an abstraction, according to St. Louis Art Museum.
Treitel will also be editing a special “Frankenstein” edition of the Common Reader, a University publication containing articles, reviews and creative non-fiction engaging with current affairs, after a push from professor Gerald Early.
Efforts to promote the bicentennial are continuing to evolve. In addition to signage around campus, the bicentennial will be promoted using a variety of methods, including table tops in the Danforth University Center, bookmarks distributed throughout the surrounding area, and social media campaigns. In addition, the Office of Public Affairs’ newsroom will be publishing stories periodically about the anniversary.
A special website—“Frankenstein200”—has been created to aggregate all information about upcoming events, and will be continuously updated as more events are announced. The website will feature original content created by members of the Washington University community about “Frankenstein” as it relates to personal experiences or research.
Though the first event isn’t until Sep. 6, the bicentennial technically began when freshmen gathered last Friday to discuss “Frankenstein,” this year’s selection for the Common Reading Program. Many members of the Washington University community joined the first-year students in reading the novel, which is the driving force behind the program’s name change, according to Associate Dean of Undergraduate Residential Learning Jill Stratton.
“In all of the literature this year, it’s called the Common Reading Program because we knew it wasn’t just first-year students reading it. There were 15 faculty and staff groups that read it this summer,” Stratton said. “We’re working with Alumni and Development to do reading groups across the country. Of course, upperclassmen read it.”
The novel was selected by a steering committee, which chose the work in hopes that the first-years would begin thinking about the issues Shelley explored in her magnum opus, written when she herself was only 18 years old. Students related the topics of “otherness” and difference to current events, including Charlottesville and Ferguson, according to Treitel, and exchanged countering opinions on the true “monster” in Frankenstein.
“Students, they said it was really interesting to hear radically different readings of the novel,” Treitel said. “We kind of recognized that you could have a friendly conversation, disagree in a very respectful manner and that this was something that everyone said, ‘we want to do more of this in college.’ I don’t know if it had to do with ‘Frankenstein’ so much as the occasion of putting twenty people with totally different intellectual makeups in a room together and having that moment.”
The Common Reading Program was formed in 2003, the same year as Washington University’s sesquicentennial, after a push from the University to create new programs. The Common Reading Program annually selects works well in advance, providing a timely shared intellectual experience for all incoming students.
Stratton hopes that the University can reinforce what incoming students are reading for the program.
“In the future, I’d love for the Common Reading Program to be even more connected to Writing 1 and what’s going on in the classroom, because I think this demonstrates that we can integrate student learning and their experiences. Oftentimes in higher education, we compartmentalize the student learning. This program really integrates student learning and having conversations where student live and connecting it to some of the bigger issues of our time,” Stratton said.
Stratton hopes that the students can remain engaged with the material they read throughout the academic year.
“I think it’s more meaningful when we have the 200th anniversary event to plug into, when we have ongoing conversations. I’m delighted that we chose the book. I think it went really well. Hopefully we’ll hear more from the students about what they thought about it,” Stratton said.
For more information about upcoming “Frankenstein” bicentennial events, visit https://www.frankenstein200.wustl.edu.
Editor’s Note: The graphic accompanying this article has been updated to reflect accurate dates.