Humanities scholar elected as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy

Humanities scholar elected as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy

Top row, far left: UChicago scholar James K. Chandler was one of 28 new members elected to the Royal Irish Academy on May 24, 2024.

By Sara Patterson

For many years, Prof. James K. Chandler studied, researched, and taught the English side of literature, politics, and history. About 30 years ago, he realized there was a wholly different Irish perspective, which was equally worthy of study and teaching. Chandler started asking questions such as “What happens if we look at the Irish perspective on English literary history? What if we shift to understanding both the Irish and English sides of certain key dates in the historical chronical:  1603, 1641, 1688, 1798, 1916?”

For his seminal work on Irish literature and cinema in his books, articles, and lectures, Chandler was elected as an honorary member to the Royal Irish Academy on May 24. He is one of 28 new members from across all disciplines elected by their peers because their work has brought international recognition to Ireland.

“The rise of Irish studies supplies an elevation of perspective, a shift of scale that allows scholars and students to extend a horizon and thus to bring parallel histories into relation with one another,” said Chandler, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of English Language and Literature and Cinema and Media Studies and the College at UChicago.

“Jim’s work has centered Ireland at the heart of the intellectual, political, and cultural storms witnessed at the turn of the 19th century,” said Josephine McDonagh, the George M. Pullman Professor and chair in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College at UChicago. “His work is so widely influential throughout the world that he has helped establish Irish writers like Edmund Burke and Maria Edgeworth as key players within European Romanticism in the Age of Revolutions. His election to the Royal Irish Academy signals the esteem with which he is held in Ireland, a country to which he has deep affectionate and scholarly connection.”

Chandler’s interest in Ireland began through his close relationship with his maternal grandmother who was born in Ireland and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. He is now at work on a book about two major literary experiments that were undertaken, respectively, in Britain and Ireland around the turn of the 19th century. In Britain, famously, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge collaborated to make a revolution in modern poetry with the publication of their Lyrical Ballads (1798-1800), adapting the “language of conversation” to the purposes of the literary lyric.

In Ireland, meanwhile, on the heels of the 1798 rebellion there, the prodigious Maria Edgeworth published her own literary experiment with oral materials in Castle Rackrent (1800), the first of many innovative works that made her so important to novelists as different as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott and to poets like W. B. Yeats, who called the book “one of the most inspired chronicles written in English.”  Chandler’s book poses the question: What shape might modern literature and criticism have were we to attend as closely to Edgeworth’s Irish experiments—semi-colonial, open to the natural sciences—as we have to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s on the British side?

Anglo-Irish writers Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Edmund Burke, and Yeats himself are also firmly fixed on Chandler’s radar. While many people know their work through their assimilation to English literary tradition, he wants to join forces with scholars who seek to restore them to their Irish origins. For example, Burke was a strong advocate for Catholicism and opposed the British controlling the American colonies. But in examples such as revolution in France, Burke identified with the British viewpoint. He is complicated case, according to Chandler. On the other hand, Swift’s famous satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” suggesting ways and reasons why the Irish people should starve demonstrates Swift’s strong identification with his native land.

“Whether he is engaging Edmund Burke’s political philosophy, Maria Edgeworth’s fiction, or Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Jim Chandler writes with a deft sensitivity to centuries of Irish cultural and political history,” said Bill Brown, the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College at UChicago. “And it is precisely because he did not begin his career in Irish studies, and because he is so attuned to disciplinary formations and transformations, that he has been able to perceive the shifting contours of the field, and to articulate so persuasively the ‘need for Irish studies’ within and beyond the humanities.”  

Irish writers have played a key role in Chandler’s earlier books. Burke is a revealed as a powerful influence on Wordsworth in his Wordsworth’s Second Nature (1984), The Irish-Catholic poet Thomas Moore is the author who links all of the case studies in England in 1819 (1998). Laurence Sterne and James Joyce figure prominently in An Archaeology of Sympathy (2013).  His most recent book, Doing Criticism: Across Literary and Screen Arts includes extended discussions of Edgeworth, Yeats, and Seamus Heaney.

Chandler has also published many articles and lectures about Irish literature, culture, and politics, which include “Edgeworth and Realism” for Irish Literature in Transition, 1780‒1830,  and “Cinema, History, and the Politics of Style: Michael Collins and The Wind that Shakes the Barley” in the Field Day Review (2011). Another essay in The Field Day Review—“Why We Need Irish Studies” (2005)— is part the required syllabus for the master’s degree program in English at Trinity College Dublin.

“When James Chandler reinvented our scholarly understanding of 18th- and 19th-century literature, he did so by giving serious attention to Irish writers including Thomas Moore, Maria Edgeworth, and Mary Tighe,” said Claire Connolly, professor of Modern English at University College Cork. “Chandler also placed Ireland at the center of his work on disciplinarity, arguing for the role of Irish studies in disrupting traditional formations of knowledge.

“Prof. Chandler also maintains strong personal connections in Ireland. He has been a member of the Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub board, a regular lecturer on Irish topics (including a Royal Irish Academy Discourse in 2012), and he is now writing a much-anticipated study of William Wordsworth and Maria Edgeworth at the intersection of fields of knowledge.”

Chandler regularly offers a popular course entitled “Irish Literature and Cinema” for students in the UChicago College. He has taught at UChicago for 48 years since 1976 before he earned his doctoral degree here in 1978. Throughout his career, Chandler has received wide recognition for his scholarship, teaching, and ability to collaborate with scholars at UChicago and many other universities.

From 2001 to 2018, he served as Director of the Franke Institute for the Humanities at UChicago and has served as principal and co-principal investigator for multiple grants from the Mellon Foundation. Chandler was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014, received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Keats-Shelley Association in 2007, and was presented with the 2001 Gordon J. Laing Prize from the UChicago Press for his book England in 1819.

“Jim Chandler is an incredibly generous and inspiring scholar,” said Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin. “During the course of his career, he has been a tireless advocate for the humanities in the U.S., Ireland, and around the world.”



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May 24, 2024