As of today, the semester is (kind of) over, which means my plan to write something here, daily, about my dissertation starts now. So this morning I dug up my notebook of lists and lol remembered why I put that notebook away in 2015 — "pine torch." I think, maybe, I'm just going to leave that there, leave this blog post here, and maybe in the future I'll have more to say about it.
My dissertation proposal took about a year to write, although, to be fair, it wasn't a yearlong sustained effort. More like: over the course of a year, I intermittently asked various advisors for editorial guidance — Lance Olsen, Melanie Rae Thon, Scott Black, Richard Preiss, and Andy Franta who spoke on behalf of the entire graduate committee — and as their suggestions and concerns and questions came back to me I incorporated little bits here and little bits there until finally, one day, I was done.
I've been working on another proposal, though, for Fit Into Me for like three years and it just won't come together. I've wisely ditched the first draft — never to be submitted, never to be seen by human eyes again (one hopes, at least)! So then last week during spring break, I attempted to force the second and the radically different third drafts into submission, but they're not right and today is the day I admit, finally, that I know it and have known it all along. So today is also the day I start over, again, using whatever tiny shreds of phrases and sentences I have that might yet be salvageable.
Wouldn't it be great if proposals just came together like wildflower bouquets and we could hold them out to the people who need them and say, "Here! Aren't they beautiful?" but instead, here I am trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong by talking about how it's all so very wrong, and all I really know is that I am the loser of this dumb drama and despite this I have to go away now and try again. (I thought I'd blog at least, to jog the typing muscles, and write 20 lines, but counting this line I only got to nine. Let's call it ten.)
At the Dallas Fort Worth airport, I bumped into Craig Dworkin and after five years of never saying a word to him I finally turned around while we were in line waiting to board and said, awkwardly and somewhat creepily, "Are you . . . Craig?" to which he said, while obviously wondering if I was a stalker, a random fan, someone from SLC he was supposed to know, etc., "Y-es?" after which we briefly established that after fifteen years of teaching he is on sabbatical and will soon be traveling to a conference (I think) in California, that our department is not comp lit (which I did not know), that my exams are behind me and now I am dissertating, and that my 98-year-old grandmother who is soon to be 99 has the genes of an immortal. Not bad for a two-minute conversation. Also not bad? I learned that on the fly, I can sum up my dissertation in one sentence, which is like, amazing.
Me: Yeah, I took exams in December, so it's been a few months now. I guess I'm working on my dissertation, but it still feels like I'm stuck in exam mode.
Craig: I think you'll always feel like that.
Craig: What's your project?
Me on the inside, totally panicking, thinking, Project!? Am I someone who is supposed to have a project? Oh, right, I just said I'm dissertating. Dear god, I'm supposed to be someone who is dissertating. WTF am I supposed to say? while somehow, despite my inner freakout, I said, calmly and like I've said it a million times before: I'm retelling the original Beauty and the Beast, and chapter by chapter mimicking the 18th Century novel, the 19th, the 20th, and 21st.
Craig, responding with the same question Lance posed way back in the early days when I first began articulating this version of the proposal for this manuscript: So you'll be imagining the 22nd Century novel too?
And here, my post begins. Today's [insert game-show host voice]: Dissertation Dilemma! What will the 22nd Century novel look like?
In Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's The Story of Beauty and the Beast (1740), Beauty's father wasn't an inventor but a merchant; and he was wealthy enough that his six daughters could count on marrying their pick of any number of barons, dukes, or earls. Until one day,
there suddenly came a reverse of fortune, which was the last thing these girls expected, and which sadly troubled the peacefulness of their life. The house in which they lived took fire. The splendid furniture with which it was filled, all the books of account, the bank-notes, the gold and silver, as well as all the precious stores, which formed the merchant's chief source of wealth, were enveloped in the disastrous conflagration the violence of which was such that scarcely anything was saved. (1)
The daughters' marriage prospects might have been salvageable but they vanished entirely when their father lost at "the same time, either by shipwreck or through falling into the hands of pirates, all the ships that he had at sea" (1). So the question (for this faux-researcher/character in my dissertation) becomes: What kind of merchant was he? We know he housed goods in his own home, he owned ships, and he imported, exported, or both, over waters dangerous enough that his ships could be wrecked or taken by pirates.
In Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade During the Eighteenth Century, Steven L. Kaplan opens with:
Cereal dependence conditioned every phase of social life in old-regime France. Grain was the dominant sector of the economy; beyond its determinant role in agriculture, direction and indirectly it shaped the development of commerce and industry, regulated employment, and provided a major source of revenue for the state, the Church, the nobility, and large segments of the Third Estate. Subsistence needs gave cereal dependence its most telling expression. The survival of most of the people turned on the availability of grain. Yet nothing was more uncertain than the harvest, and even an apparently abundant harvest could not allay anxieties, for the process of distribution was fraught with perils, both natural and man-made. (7)
As I read more of Kaplan's 600-plus page brick of a book, I became somewhat interested in trying to make a case for Beauty's father being a grain merchant. But I think what really made me pursue the idea was that, on a recent-ish "jog" with J. I. Daniels, I was informed that flour is explosive. Here's a video of Mr. Wizard explaining why flour mills explode. Here's one of flour exploding in slow motion. And another of a flour powered flame thrower. If this isn't enough to convince you, too, that it could be pretty cool to open my dissertation with the scene of the merchant's house burning down due to multiple flour explosions, then how on earth are you finding yourself here, this far into this blog post?
Unfortunately, Kaplan also has a chapter called "Miller Family, Marriage, and Fortune," and after reading this chapter, I'm not at all sure that a grain merchant's daughters would ever be courted by noblemen. Kaplan writes: "The richest miller about whom I have any precise information is Etienne Palleau, of the Dourdan area. He left an estate of over 60,000 livres, including 10,000 livres in cash, a mill worth 10,000 livres, almost 12,000 livres in other real estate, wine worth 1,000 livres, wheat valued at 3,369 livres (some probably of his own cultivation), and over 7,000 livres in furnishings and effects, including 800 livres of silver" (333). But maybe my merchant can also deal in "furnishings and effects," whatever those are, and "other real estate." Wine, too, seems an obvious contender, right?
New research question: Did 18th Century pirates drink wine?
(updated 15 February 2018)
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