Stories from Summer Vacation: Dr. Julia Mickenberg in the UK

Next up is a dispatch from across the pond! Dr. Julia Mickenberg discusses her time spent in the UK:

A reading of Dubliners at Sweny's Pharmacy in Dublin

A reading of Dubliners at Sweny’s Pharmacy in Dublin

I spent the first part of the summer trying to finish some writing projects, putting together a new Plan II Signature Course on “College and Controversy,” and getting ready to spend six weeks in Ireland and the UK. On July 4th my family left for Ireland, where we spent a week, mostly in the West—we visited Yeats’ Tower (closed, but still really cool, down a narrow lane and next to a beautiful stream) and Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, containing a huge tree autographed by pretty much every literary figure from early twentieth-century Ireland. My daughters busked in Galway, and took in 7 Euros, which they spent on fancy ice cream cones. In Dublin we visited Sweny’s Pharmacy, featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and now preserved as a kind of tribute to Joyce: there we participated in a rather magical reading from Dubliners.

Now I’m in Oxford, England, tagging along with a crew from UT’s English department (including my husband, Dan Birkholz), which runs a summer program here. Outside my window are green fields where old men and women do lawn bowling and play bocce, and boys and girls play soccer. Running between two fields (and also just outside my window) is a bicycle path that goes to the city (we’re in an area called Summertown, just north of Oxford) and out into the countryside. Nearly every morning I’ve been running through a green meadow and woods with walking paths, the Thames River slowly winding alongside.

After a bike ride along the Thames

After a bike ride along the Thames

Sometimes I work at home, in my little study looking out over the athletic fields. Other days bicycle into Oxford, which seems to be filled with American students. No matter, it’s still a pretty fabulous place, heavy with history, the kind of place that makes you want to do nothing but read. Blackwell’s Bookstore is dizzying. Every site in town is a literary reference. Speaking of books and literature, I’ve been working in the Bodleian Library, which is probably the ur-library of libraries. There’s an exhibit going on right now in the library about Magic in Children’s Literature, from the Middle Ages to Middle Earth. Pretty awesome stuff, with original Tolkien manuscripts alongside illuminated manuscripts that you can’t believe they’ve just put in a case for everyone to see. I’ve met with some British children’s literature scholars, and Oxford is, of course, home to Alice Liddel of Alice in Wonderland fame, not to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, etc., but mainly I’m working on the book that’s been preoccupying me for years, on Russia in the American Feminist Imagination, 1905-1945.

So, at the Bodleian. Once I found my way to the place where the books I needed were supposedly shelved, through the maze of stairs and passageways, I stood mystified for a while, with no clue as to how to find the books I needed (and I pride myself on being a library person). Finally an old man asked me if I needed help and I said yes, yes I do need help. Turns out, as I have remarked elsewhere, these English people don’t use the Library of Congress cataloguing system. But I found my books and sat happily reading in the bowels of the library (seriously, I was in the sub, sub-basement). I’m mostly working in the Vere Harmsworth Library, specializing in American culture (yup, they haven’t forgotten us in Merrie olde England). I’m also taking a few trips into London: the chapter I’m currently writing concerns a joint American-British Quaker Russian famine relief effort in 1921-1922, and I need to look at materials in the London Friends House. Several radicals (American and British) managed to get into Russia during the allied blockade by volunteering with the Quakers, who didn’t care about their volunteers’ politics. I’m interested especially in how publicity workers created sympathy for the Bolshevik project by playing on the public’s concern for starving Russian children (child savers presenting the possibility of a glorious future if these children are saved, i.e. child saviors). Doing a bunch of other research too depending on how many trips to London I can squeeze in: at the Karl Marx Library, the Women’s Library at London School of Economics, the Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies, and the World Education Fellowship.

It’s a lot to cram in, what with all the traveling we’re doing, some with the UT Program (Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen-related sites, William Morris related sites, etc.). In the Lake District we’ll see the landscapes that inspired William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, and other luminaries of childhood innocence. And right here in Oxford there’s plenty to do. This past weekend we went on a long bike ride along the Thames, and went punting from the Cherwell Boat House with Lisa Moore (a colleague on the UT program) and her son Max. I’m drinking a lot of tea and spending quality time in English pubs, trying my requisite share of British ales.