CSU Professor Captures Opera's Influence on American Literature

carmen skaggs

COLUMBUS, Ga. — In Overtones of Opera in American Literature from Whitman to Wharton, Columbus State University English professor Carmen Skaggs explores the influence of opera on American writing, in both poetry and fiction.

The recently published book explores how major writers used opera in capturing the transformations of a rapidly changing American literary landscape during the 19th- and early 20th century.

The book begins with a brief history of opera in such cities as New Orleans, New York, and Boston, and then takes the reader through opera’s infiltration into literature in works by Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Henry James and Edith Wharton.

book jacket“There are sort of two threads to it,” Skaggs said. “I am interested in opera both as the art form itself and then as a cultural institution because by the time you get to books by James and Wharton, they are thinking about how opera is representative of cultural codes in higher society.”

Skaggs grew up playing the piano and singing, and had always been a lover of opera. As a Mercer University undergraduate, she initially majored in music and literature. However, when she began working on her master's degree in English at the University of Georgia, she took a seminar course on Henry James and Willa Cather. “When I started reading their work, references to opera kept popping up,” she said. “It was something that I knew about, was interested in, and wanted to explore more.”

Skaggs started working her research into book form when Louisiana State University Press approached her to submit a proposal and abstract. She focused on opera’s infiltration into American literature since most of the research in this interdisciplinary field focuses on European literature.

Skaggs discovered opera began “flowering as an art form here at the same time that those writers are writing.” She believes that opera began infiltrating their writing because several of them, such as Whitman, Cather, and Poe, wrote reviews for journals and magazines.

She also discovered opera is represented differently in each author’s work. “Many of them will name specific operas, such as Whitman who cited Romantic Italian operas and Cather and Chopin who were primarily interested in Wagnerian operas,” she says. “However, it was also used to represent cultural forms and measure good taste, particularly in the late 19th century.”

Skaggs has carried over the work from the book into the classroom. In her comparative arts classes, she teaches opera as a literary and dramatic form. She finds it fun when students express surprise at discovering they like opera or realize that it has made its way into popular culture in music that they know.

For more information about the book, visit http://www.lsu.edu/lsupress/bookPages/9780807134917.html.