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Archive for December 4th, 2019

This is the third in a new series of posts that will offer a global perspective on Woolf studies, as proposed by Stefano Rozzoni at the 29th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact Blogging Woolf at bloggingwoolf@yahoo.com.

The road to Cincinnati is not long or arduous if you are starting out from downtown Toronto. In fact, it’s nearly a straight shot: taking the 401 West and crossing into the US at Windsor, the I75 South will lead you to your destination after eight or nine hours. I know this because it is the route I took to Woolf and Social Justice: The 29th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, which was held at Mount St. Joseph University this past June.

Speeding towards any other conference, this long and unchallenging trek of highway might have provided an extended opportunity for me, a fourth-year PhD candidate, to stress over the paper I’d be delivering, and the many people I would soon need to meet (and impress). This was not my travel experience to this conference, however.

How come? The answer to that question begins with my acceptance into the conference program last February, and explains a good deal about the hearty welcome I received from all in Cincinnati.

There was, most welcome of all, a summoning together…

Shortly after sending word that I would indeed be presenting, conference organiser Drew Shannon (MSJ) contacted me personally via Facebook Messenger to ask if I had any questions or concerns about the coming gathering.

An enthusiastic first-time conference-goer hopes that his T-shirt will gain him entry to the Woolfians’ inner circles.

Over the course of our chat, I found myself provided not simply with logistical answers, but with a good idea of the Woolfians I would meet there (Jean Moorcroft Wilson! Cecil Woolf!), and anecdotes about Drew having enjoyed a London breakfast at their table—the same one that Woolf herself had used to set the Hogarth Press edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land.

I can’t say that I have ever been personally contacted by a conference organiser, and I had certainly never had one welcome me into the fold so enthusiastically. This, I’ve since gathered, was something that Drew did time and again in the months preceding our in-person meeting. The effort he exerted to make us first-timers feel welcomed (before, during, and after the conference) is to be commended, and, I would suggest, imitated by those in a similar position who dare try.

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here” (Dante), as seen on the entry to the stacks at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library

As fate would have it, Cecil’s final illness prevented him and Jean from attending the conference, and, as I recently remarked to another Woolfian, the couple’s absence had a marked presence on the goings-on that was perceptible even to a first-time Woolf-goer like myself. I like to think that this was possible because of the excellent scholarship and better fellowship on offer at the IVWS’ historical conferences, the latest incarnation of which I experienced first-hand at VW29.

For example, a blending of the scholarly and the social was to be found at the ‘world premiere’ of Leonard Woolf’s closet drama The Hotel, which can safely be classified as a conference-wide effortWhile it was acted in MSJ’s large auditorium by Drew’s infamous Woolfpack, the performance’s numerous fourth-wall breaks and plentiful helping of cheek saw the whole audience participating in the evening’s entertainment.

Similarly, the wine and cheese reception at the city’s historic Mercantile Library is not an event whose rich setting and intimate conversation I will soon forget. Nor will I forget the successive evenings where conference attendees gathered in MSJ’s dorms to sip boxed wine, eat stale pizza, and discuss all things Woolf-related (and a few that were not).

Papers given on all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast…

The bard gazes (with contempt?) at a bookshelf asking who composed his life’s works, Mercantile Library

On the academic side of the equation, my interest as a scholar of the Great War was piqued by the panels on Woolf’s pacifism and war-legacies, and by my co-presenters in “Woolf, War, and Social Justice”: Charlotte Fiehn (Texas) and Chelsie Hoskins (Miami).

But variety was the name of the day (or week). For example, I attended M. Rita D. Viana’s (Universidade Federale de Santa Catarina) paper on differing translations of Orlando into Brazilian Portuguese. This small panel, which also included Scott Stalcup (Northern Illinois), initiated a discussion I found irresistible, despite the fact that I know no Portuguese and had never read Orlando (an oversight that I have since remedied).

The plenary talk on Woolf in the era of #MeToo meanwhile made an excellent argument for grounding transformative justice in storytelling, while panels throughout the week did not shy away from highlighting Woolf’s own race- and class-inflected blind spots when otherwise praising her activist writing.

By getting to know the group that had shared 28 such experiences (more or less) with Jean and Cecil, over the course of VW29 I gradually came to understand why they were so affected by the couple’s absence.

For it was the middle of June. The conference was over…

The author’s first GIF: MSJ’s gargantuan flag flying proudly on a quiet June night

Finally, for all that the people Drew gathered may have had in common, and even in light of their long shared history together, it cannot be said that they were a uniform crowd. Participants ranged in experience from senior undergraduates to retired faculty, with a healthy sampling from every stage in between (and an especially robust helping of graduate students).

What’s more, these participants came to Cincinnati from the world over—I have fond memories of sharing an American buffet-breakfast with two Brits, an Indian dinner with Brazilians, a meditation on MSJ’s massive American flag with an Irishwoman, and a number of similarly memorable conversations with Americans (and Canadians!) who might have started their weeks anywhere from coast to coast to coast. Variety indeed!

As I wound my way back to Ontario, this time driving north-east around Lake Erie, I found myself once more with time for reflection. I had learned quite a bit at Woolf and Social Justice, made some friends (“networked”), and had an unforgettable experience to boot. While it may not be practical or even possible for me to attend this conference’s successors every single year, I’m certain that I’ll find my way back amongst this group before too long, whatever winding road it may be that takes me there.

The only picture the author managed to take of himself at VW29, replete with a thumb in the upper-left corner.

Sean A. McPhail is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. His research (primarily) concerns the relationship between kinship and commemoration in the war-writings of Siegfried Sassoon.

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