Inaugural Tennenhouse Lecture

Photo of Tim Bewes at "Tennenhouse Lecture"

Brown University Professor Tim Bewes presented "Lukács and Baldwin: A Conversation Between Novel Theory and Black Studies" for the inaugural Len Tennenhouse Lecture. A capacity crowd joined Bewes for his lecture focused on the first of a projected three essay study of "Race and the Novel."

Students, faculty, Duke community members, and literary arts supporters were eager to hear Bewes discuss his work. Bewes began his lecture by thanking the department for the honor of being selected for the inaugural Len Tennenhouse Lecture and went on to share his connection to Professor Tennenhouse, noting that he and his wife, Professor Nancy Armstrong, were two of the first friends Bewes made upon arriving in the United States.

"I appreciated the chance to hear how Tim Bewes is using the works of authors I have studied in the past-- C.L.R. James, Fred Moten, Hortense Spillers-- in conjunction with novel theory, which I have not studied before. After this lecture, I am interested in learning more about the novel (failed) and the novelistic, as well as the ways we define fictional dimensions." -  Trisha Santanam, '26, English major

"It's wonderful that the English department has this new lecture series, and Professor Bewes was an excellent choice to deliver the inaugural lecture. He gave me new perspectives on the state of novel theory, and his comments especially struck me on how James Baldwin explained the incoherence in the stories we tell that results from white supremacy and systemic oppression." Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, Duke University Head Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian for Literature

"I was excited to welcome Tim Bewes to Duke for the Len Tennenhouse Lecture. Bewes is pushing the field of novel theory toward its limits. His talk and the conversation that ensued, was a chance to explore those limits together." James Draney, Duke English Ph.D. candidate

"I enjoyed learning about Prof. Bewes' work in thinking about how the novel (and the novelistic) operates across different registers. As a writer, I always enjoy thinking about theory in relation to craft and was intrigued by the distinctions between novel, (failed) novel, and the novelistic – and how these concepts work with and move beyond what we traditionally consider (long-form) fiction." Tyler King, '25, English

Following his lecture Bewes took the time to field questions from the audience about his research, writings, and thoughts on "race and the novel." Bewes acknowledged that some questions gave him new ideas for future research and writing opportunities.

Tim Bewes and crowd at Tennenhouse Lecture

"I thought the inaugural Tennenhouse Lecture, given by Prof. Tim Bewes, was a great success. We had a full house, a brilliant speaker, and a fantastic discussion about novel theory. Tim argued that concepts of the novel and the novelistic shape ways of thinking in other disciplines like Black Studies. It was a rare convergence of interests and fields." - Aarthi Vadde, Duke English Professor

Professors Tennenhouse and Armstrong attended the lecture virtually, and shared remarks following the lecture:

"In our view, Professor Vadde's introduction to the Len Tennenhouse lecture accurately described Tim Bewes as the ideal speaker to launch this lecture series. Winner of the 2022 National Book Critics Award for literary criticism, he is not only an old friend and former colleague of ours but also a favorite among students for his unique ability to "make theory lucid." Today's talk provides a preview of Tim's book now underway, which focuses on the process by which certain theories, like great works of fiction, try to bring intelligibility to that which cannot yet be thought—or what he, at one point, called "ideas in process." For him, that still ungraspable train of thought has always been the holy grail of reading novels. This talk explains the impossibility of reaching this nonetheless compelling objective by putting Georg Lukács' essay "The Theory of the Novel" in pointed conversation with James Baldwin's "Notes for a Hypothetical Novel"—in particular, with Baldwin's observation that anything we say about the concept of "race" has already been said. Ideology is indeed speaking for us. With Baldwin's help, Bewes makes a persuasive case for thinking of race as a not-yet-thought concept, a felt absence, which, though unthinkable, is nonetheless necessary for making the whole of humanity graspable in words. If, as Bewes suggests, this absence in the American novel leaves us asking, what is "an American?" then we must also bring that question back to bear on novel theory and the missing totality that so perplexed and enchanted the young Lukács."

The day following his lecture, Bewes met with a group of Duke English graduate students for a small group workshop and luncheon.

"I really enjoy getting to hear what people at different schools, in different environments, are thinking about. It feels very stimulating to watch how people are connecting things I don't yet know about in ways I wouldn't have thought of. I also greatly enjoyed eating lunch with Prof. Bewes and other graduate students and getting to ask him questions in a casual, conversational context." - Julia Gordon, Duke English Ph.D. candidate

Established in 2023, the Len Tennenhouse Lecture honors Professor Leonard Tennenhouse, who retired at the end of the 2022 Fall semester. Tennenhouse joined the Duke English faculty in 2008, and during his tenure, he served as department chair, interim DUS, and on numerous departmental and university committees. His areas of research included Shakespeare and American and British literature, which were often the focus of the courses he taught during his decade and a half at Duke.