On September 22, Lehigh University hosted Jane Austen at 200, a free public symposium that brought together over seventy people to celebrate the writer and her works. The event was planned during the bicentennial of the author’s death to consider both the long legacy of critical conversations surrounding her novels and life and imagine future possible scholarly discussions. Wendy Lee (New York University), Devoney Looser (Arizona State University), and Victoria Baugh (Arizona State University) were invited speakers and all delivered public addresses to which the audience responded with questions and comments. Claudia L. Johnson (Princeton University) had planned to speak as well but had to cancel due to illness; Wendy Lee was able to read Johnson’s paper. The day-long event concluded with a panel discussion on the future of Austen studies that featured the guest scholars as well as Lehigh University faculty members Michael Kramp and Lyndon Dominique. The symposium also included a book-signing.
Baugh discussed Austen’s final narrative, the unfinished Sanditon, alongside other early nineteenth-century stories to treat colonialism and the representation of blackness. Johnson’s paper investigated the role of the sublime and sublime experiences in Austen’s work, considering how her characters surprisingly encounter such moments in daily life. Looser read from her recent influential book, The Making of Jane Austen (2017; Johns Hopkins). She discussed the popular legacy of Austen throughout the late nineteenth century and the various ways in which her novels have been adapted and modified to different mediums. And Lee spoke about Austen’s relationship to philosophy, and especially the realm of ethics. She took up the dialogue between Austen and Hume to help us think about the ways in which Austen’s plots and language might invite us to think through ethical situations.
Leading up to Jane Austen at 200, the Bethlehem Public Library hosted a Jane Austen reading group. Lehigh University faculty members and graduate students from the Department of English served as discussion leaders for each of the group meetings, as over thirty individuals gathered to talk about each of Austen’s six novels. The symposium was also prefaced by a Jane Austen film series at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema that included screenings of Pride and Prejudice (1940; Dir. Leonard), Sense and Sensibility (1995; Dir. Lee), and The Jane Austen Book Club (2007; Dir. Swicord). Finally, the symposium included an impressive book exhibit, “Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism,” curated by Heather Simoneau and Katie Hurlock. The exhibition, which runs through December, features books and items of interest from Lehigh University’s collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications by women writers.
Jane Austen at 200 served as the culmination of an important public humanities experience in which members of the Lehigh Valley community engaged in open and vibrant dialogue on the ongoing relevance of literature. Participants in the symposium discussed Austen’s relationship to compelling social issues such as slavery, ethics, sexuality, cultural production, and the sublime. We did solve any of these problems, and we certainly did not agree on Austen’s position in these discussions, but the symposium on September 22 and, indeed, all the experiences leading up to the main event demonstrated the sustained importance of literature as a medium and tool for public dialogue.