Doctoral candidate wins coveted fellowship for dissertation on landscape representation in modernist literature

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Molly Volanth Hall. Photo by Nora Lewis
Molly Volanth Hall. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 11, 2019 – Molly Volanth Hall, a University of Rhode Island doctoral candidate in English, has won a coveted Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowship in European Studies for her study exploring landscape representation in modernist literature of World War I.

The Council for European Studies (CES) awards about 10 of the competitive fellowships annually from a pool of 150 to 200 applicants. This year’s recipients represent such schools as Princeton, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago, along with URI. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the fellowship includes a $27,500 stipend, helping to support advanced graduate students in humanities in their final year of writing their Ph.D. dissertation.

“I’m very excited and a little shocked because often people at state schools don’t tend to get Mellon grants,” said Hall, of East Providence, R.I. “It will give me the space away from teaching and other responsibilities to be able to finish my dissertation. So, I’m very grateful.”

Hall’s dissertation, “Ecologies of Materiality and Aesthetics in British Modernist War-Time Literature, 1890-1939,” examines the use of landscape to reflect authors’ experiences and attitudes of World War I. In particular, Hall looks at the works – along with letters and diaries – of modernist writers Rebecca West, Radclyffe Hall, Robert Graves and David Jones.

“These representations of landscape,” Hall said, “are reflective of a shift in terms of how the writers see themselves in relation to the environment and how they perceive nature to be in general.”

The horrors of World War I altered those perceptions for soldier and civilian alike. Mounds of bodies, miles of muddy trenches, bomb-scarred towns, pulverized no man’s lands greeted combatants, many of whom lacked military experience. They were boys off the farms or out of the mines, Hall said, along with their high-born officers.

At home in England, people also faced a changing landscape, literally and figuratively. “All of a sudden, they were losing an entire generation of people,” she said. “The women had to take roles usually reserved for men. The land itself was being devoted to the war effort. All the farming was devoted to making food for the soldiers. The forests were being stripped to line the trenches.”

At the same time, the war brought home to the island the reality of the violence and environmental destruction that English imperialism had caused for decades in its colonies.

“That starts to shift their understanding of their relationship to the environment and their understanding of themselves as British subjects,” Hall said. “If your identity depends on this idea of Englishness being the epitome of democracy and civilization, but you’re out there destroying the world, how do you reconcile that conflict and move forward?

“A lot of it gets projected onto the environment as a hostile place where we have to fight for survival,” she said. “And other writers use this as a critique of imperialism.”

World War I still leaves a global legacy in how we view the environment, including issues such as global warming and geopolitical inequities.

“What I’m focusing on is the fact that people today, all over the world, have certain attitudes toward the environment that are impacted by this social history that was being created in the early 20th century,” she said.

Hall has long had an interest in the environment. She holds a master’s in education from Cambridge College in Boston that focused on human rights, environmental ethics and animal protection, along with a master’s in literature from the University of New Hampshire. But her choice of thesis was also influenced by a newer interest in “historical trauma.”

“When I decided to write my M.A. thesis, I asked myself what was a book that I was emotionally drawn to,” Hall said. “For me that was Lord of the Rings, because I’m sort of a nerd. I had already decided to focus on the modernist period, and the historical center piece of that is World War I. So, I looked more and more at Lord of the Rings. Many people see it as representing World War II, but [J.R.R. Tolkien] wrote this in the trenches of World War I and it speaks more to the changes that are happening with that conflict.”

As part of her doctoral coursework, Hall read about 150 books for her comprehensive exam prior to presenting her proposal to her dissertation committee, which is led by English Professor Jean Walton. In those books, Hall repeatedly found that trauma reflected in the depiction of landscape.

“I found this over and over – in modernist texts that weren’t necessarily environmentalist – that everything they wanted to express about nation, express about World War I, was routed through landscape representation. You almost couldn’t escape it. And in modernist studies, which is my field, nobody talks about that at all.”

As a Mellon-CES fellow, Hall must complete her dissertation in the next year. If she does, it will have taken her six years to finish. “I decided when I started that I wasn’t going to rush because I wanted my publication record to be as good as it could be in order to get a job,” said Hall, who plans on teaching literature at a college or university.

Hall’s publications include an article in the peer-reviewed journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, and the co-edited upcoming book Affective Materialities: Reorienting the Body in Modernist Literature, for which she co-wrote the introduction.

Along with the Mellon-CES fellowship, Hall has received research funding from the URI Graduate School, the URI Center for the Humanities, the Northeast Modern Language Association, along with a fellowship from the URI Coastal Institute.