Prof. Kenneth W. Warren to address how unprecedented income inequality affects literature in Humanities Day keynote

Renowned scholar asks what happens when ‘housing values become the driver of human interaction’

How do novels mirror society? Prof. Kenneth W. Warren’s scholarship addresses the relationship between literature and the public sphere, particularly African American literature during the Jim Crow era. 

The author of a number of transformative books about literature, Warren said since the 18th century, novelists have wrestled with the question of whether the idea of character—both as a moral quality and a representation of individuality—can withstand the pressure of extreme wealth.  

Warren will further that conversation Oct. 15 in his keynote address during Humanities Day—a revered tradition since 1980 that highlights UChicago research to the public and underscores the power of art, literature, philosophy, music, linguistics, media, and languages.  

During his presentation, entitled “Wealth, Inequality, and the Novel,” he’ll discuss examples of recent fiction suggesting that—in our moment of unprecedented inequality—neither character nor society remain intelligible. His address, which will begin at 11 a.m. CT, will be delivered both in person and virtually.  

In this edited Q&A, Warren, the Fairfax Cone Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, discusses the evolution of the novel, human connectedness, and how the interdisciplinary culture at UChicago expands, complicates and clarifies his work. 

Your Humanities Day keynote address focuses on wealth, inequality, and the novel. How does this topic fit into your scholarship?  

I look at how wealth, inequality and the novel are playing out in our society now. Currently, neoliberalism takes the optimistic view that the market expansion will produce greater freedom for more people. However, we also see that not all notions of human good are compatible with the markets.  

During this time, many contemporary writers are considering what is happening to human connectedness when some people become so wealthy that they can treat other people like furniture, or what happens when housing values become the driver of human interaction?  

For example, the British novelist Rachel Cusk is skeptical about the capacity of storytelling to help us understand contemporary reality. Her trilogy of novels, which includes Outline (2014), Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018), uses personal experience while avoiding conventions of characterization and plot, as if the novel form can no longer tell us about the world we live in. She, along with several contemporary authors explore whether or not it is possible to renew literary fiction as form of intellectual discovery.  

Why has your decision to focus on American and African American literature from the late-19th to mid-20th century helped to focus and expand your scholarship?  

I have a longstanding interest in Ralph Ellison and his seminal novel 1952 Invisible Man, which, though set in the mid-20th century, affirmed that the period immediately following Reconstruction established the framework within which the problems of American democracy would be wrestled with for the next half century. I am interested in what happened during this period and its repercussions in succeeding decades, and how novels and critical essays did and did not move literature forward to advance the idea of democracy.  

The late-19th and 20th centuries also reflect the growing sense among authors that writing novels were serious undertakings and should produce a convincing portrait of life. Novels became more than means of entertaining or educating readers; they became a way of thinking about literary form.  

A few of the questions that I have been asking: Are novels compatible with an extension of artistic freedom and democracy? Do novels expose the shortcomings of democracy? And how do authors from the Gilded Age like Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner come to terms with the dramatic increase in enormous wealth and the expansion of commerce in society? How does the novel as a form of literature mirror our society? 

In your more than 30 years at the University of Chicago, what do you find distinctive about the culture and your colleagues?  

Perhaps more so than many universities, the University of Chicago has asserted and committed to the idea that students and faculty should follow their interests and ask deep and probing questions. For these reasons, I feel drawn to UChicago for the intellectual experience and experimentation it encourages.  

At UChicago, faculty members are in an environment where there is a real expectation of hiring new colleagues, promoting them to tenure or beyond and undertaking serious reading and discussion with them. I have found spending time with the work of your colleagues—regardless of their field—is invaluable. This interaction expands, complicates and clarifies the questions that I bring to my work.  

What are your current research projects?  

I am co-authoring a book with Adolph Reed Jr., an emeritus professor in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, which explores politics related to race and class, and looks at cultural expression. Also, I am finishing a work on two Black novelists in the 1950s—Ann Petry and William Gardner Smith—by analyzing their novels to understand the shift from novels as primarily representing the world to novels as vehicles for self-expression.  

Humanities Day 2022 is on October 15. Register today at Free of cost and open to the public.