Dorothy Kelly, The Living Death of Modernity

Prof. Dorothy Kelly on Her New Book, The Living Death of Modernity

Photo of Dorothy Kelly
Dorothy Kelly

My forthcoming book, The Living Death of Modernity, grew out of my classes on nineteenth-century French literature here at BU. I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach some of the greatest classics of the century by Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola, and even better, to teach them several times, always finding new meaning and beauty in each reading.

Several years ago, I noticed something strange in the novels and stories by Balzac and Zola. These authors both famously made clear that they wanted to represent the realities of their time in their novels, which they did. Nonetheless, in my years of reading, I noted that both authors also frequently represented their realist or naturalist characters as being both alive and dead. It was not a case of ghosts or vampires, but rather of human beings who were described more metaphorically as living and dead. I wondered what this meant. Baudelaire, who was for the most part a poet, was already known as someone who represented ghosts and vampires in his texts. However, he also described human beings, as well as the poet represented in the texts, as living and dead. In the book, I bring out the various symbolic meanings of these images, as well as the commonalities shared by the three authors.

The hardest part of writing this book was probably the necessity of reading and considering all of the voluminous work already written on these texts. Although scholars have touched on certain aspects of living death in these authors, I could find no study that looked at this topic in depth in their works and across the three authors.

I think my favorite part of the book is the section on Baudelaire. I first read his poetry in my sophomore year in college, and in that class my professor put us in groups to read the poem, “La Chevelure,” and to come up with a list of all of the images of hair in the text. This was an eye-opener for me. I was fascinated and intrigued by the multiple meanings of these images and the way in which they combined with each other. It was that experience that set me on the path to becoming a professor of literature. I haven’t written much on Baudelaire, because my graduate work took me in the direction of prose, so I feel I have come back to my initial love for his work in this book.

Story originally posted January 2021.