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Modernism and the Present 

Urmila Seshagiri
Urmila Seshagiri

“One of the great things about being a professor of Modernism during the pandemic is that you no longer have to work to convince your students that historical breaks are real,” UT English Professor Urmila Seshagiri said.

By “breaks,” she means pivotal moments in history after which the world is never the same as it was before.  For the Modernists, including British writer Virginia Woolf, the essential historical break was the first world war and the 1918 influenza pandemic that followed it, unprecedented modern horrors that for writers of the time fueled a dramatic pivot from the literary tradition they inherited. Such a world suddenly feels more familiar to those who have lived through COVID.  

“All of our students come into classrooms now having grappled with the possibility of their own death in a way most nineteen-year-olds don’t,” Seshagiri said. 

Seshagiri first fell in love with Virginia Woolf when she was a student herself. As a scholar she later returned to Woolf while writing her first book, Race and the Modernist Imagination. Now Seshagiri is revisiting Woolf in an even more intimate way, as she prepares and publishes new editions of three of the author’s most important works. This past October saw the release of a new edition of Jacob’s Room, Woolf’s third novel, introduced and annotated by Seshagiri (published by Oxford University Press). Still forthcoming are editions of Woolf’s unfinished memoir, Sketch of the Past (Cornell University Press) and To the Lighthouse (Norton), perhaps her most famous novel. 

Scholarly editions such as these are laborious undertakings, requiring repeated and extensive visits to archives, which in the case of Woolf are spread across the US and England. For Seshagiri, the time and expense of the travel and onsite research necessary for her editions would have been impossible without generous funding from the English Department and the College of Arts and Sciences. In the archives, Seshagiri is able to study Woolf’s original manuscripts, some fully handwritten, others marked with the author’s own corrections, insertions, and deletions. She still feels a thrill at getting to hold in her own hands irreplaceable pieces of art once touched by her favorite author.

For Seshagiri, what makes Woolf endure is the beauty and humor of her writing, as well as Woolf’s boldness, even among other Modernists, in confronting “the fact of mortality and refusing to bow down before it,” a characteristic of newly increased relevance. 

“I’ve never been more grateful to be trained in this field as I was during the pandemic. I was able to teach the literature of crisis in a time of the most extreme crisis any of us in the first world has ever lived through.”