Amanda Goldstein’s fascination with William Blake leads to MLA book award

December 12, 2018
By: John Hickey
Amanda Jo Goldstein
Amanda Jo Goldstein drew upon her fascination with the poet William Blake and earned her the Modern Language Association’s Prize for a First Book. (UC Berkeley photo by John Hickey)

Just when William Blake was out of Amanda Goldstein’s life, he came stomping back in a most unexpected way.

The book the Berkeley associate professor had written about the melding of poetry and science centuries past, Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life, had been out of her mind for the better part of a year.

Then, not long ago came an email telling her that she’d won the Modern Language Association’s 25th annual Prize for a First Book.

“My husband (Berkeley comparative literature professor Tom McEnaney) and I were moving from Cornell to Berkeley (in 2017), when the book came out,” Goldstein says. “We didn’t have a place to live in Berkeley yet, and we spent about a month in Berlin with our stuff in a storage locker down by the bay, waiting for Cal Housing to come through. So, when the book physically came out, I didn’t have an address, and it was delivered to my mom’s house. She was the first one to see it.

“I’d inscribed a few books for family and friends, but other than that, I hadn’t even opened the book. I didn’t want to see if there were typos or mistakes that I’d missed.”

Writers can be like that. They know what their book is supposed to say. It’s deflating to see as much as a sentence askew.

But the MLA forced Goldstein’s hand. The organization’s policy is to have winning authors take a single sentence out of their books to serve as a teaser. To give them that, Goldstein had to take a deep dive into the book.

Sweet Science originally began as her Berkeley Ph.D. dissertation after doing undergraduate work at Brown. Blake’s poetry had a certain scientific tone to it, and his references to energy, invention, waterwheels and Isaac Newton intrigued Goldstein. He made it into her dissertation in a minor way.

She never wrote a master’s thesis. But it was all mapped out in her mind, and it was all William Blake.

“It’s been percolating a pretty long time for me, since at least the time when I was an undergraduate,” Goldstein says. “I did not write a thesis on William Blake. And the thesis I didn’t write on William Blake had this question at its core, which is, `Why does this poet, who is famous for criticizing the Enlightenment and scientific reason, a critic of the limits of scientific rationality, why does he write his poetry in a technically physiological idiom?’

“What I mean by that is that he articulates his critique of the Enlightenment in the language of nerves and fibers and globules of blood. There is this real physiological detail through which the critique of science is routed. As someone who was always torn between a major in the life sciences and one in literature and poetry, in grad school I started learning about the history of the life sciences and where they were at the time of the poetic writing that I loved.”

The end result was Sweet Science, where Blake figures mightily and where Goldstein began an unabashed love affair with Erasmus Darwin. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus was an abolitionist, an inventor, a physiologist and contemporary of Blake who wrote science-infused poetry that spoke directly to Goldstein.

“He’s telling us something empirically and descriptively, and I like that,” she says. So much so that Darwin is like to be “all of or at least a big chunk of” the next book she’ll be writing. And it figures to be another dive into the twin worlds of science and poetry.

Remember that sentence from the first book the MLA asked her for? This is it:

“‘De Rerum Natura’ (a first-century B.C. poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius) is the kind of text, the kind of poetry and science that results from declining to conceive of figuration as merely a strategy of consciousness or a linguistic effect … Romantics revived its precedent not only as a plural logic of organic and inorganic transformation, but also as a monumental and gorgeous case for poetry’s role in the perception and communication of empirical realities.”

This first book is the intertwining of the romantic poets and the scientific age they lived in. And while she was delighted to have written it, “given the subject matter, I wasn’t sure it was a book many people would read.”

The sentence she selected was a mouthful, to be sure. But Goldstein seems to have been wrong about how many eyes would see it.