by Andi McDaniel
The only constant in life is change, according to popular wisdom. And yet, we humans are forgetful; sometimes it seems the dilemmas we face today have always plagued us and always will. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep a cultural historian around.
Perhaps that’s the reason the University of Pennsylvania was so glad to welcome Bethany Wiggin (Ph.D., ’02) aboard in 2003, when she graduated from the U to become assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures at the Ivy League school. Wiggin is responsible for teaching the early modern period—roughly 1400 to 1800 C.E.
It’s pretty much the perfect fit, says Wiggin. Committed to “retaining a historical focus" in her work, Wiggin finds that the best part of her job is that her research and teaching responsibilities are so well integrated. “In my classes," she explains, “I explore precisely the same period that’s in my book," an arrangement that works out well for both parties.
The book Wiggin is completing, titled Novel Translations: The German Book and the European Novel, 1680–1730, examines the evolution of the book market in Europe in the 18th century. In 1680, she notes, short French fictions were all the rage—translated into several other languages within weeks or months of their publication. And yet, 50 years later, the market had inverted: books written in English became the trendsetters and their authors the new arbiters of literary style.
Asked what initially drew her to this topic—and to historical phenomena in general—Wiggin thinks back to a great study-abroad experience she had in 2002, through a program run by the University of Minnesota and the University of Iceland. While Wiggin has been passionate about culture and language for the bulk of her academic career, her time in Iceland was her first direct encounter with the magic of history. “Iceland is a culture where the past is very much alive," she says. “There, the medieval past is present in a way I’d never seen. Contemporary Icelanders are really familiar with stories from the medieval period—[the past] is just part of their vernacular."
But the thing Wiggin finds most compelling about history is what it reveals about the present: that it will eventually change. “One of the amazing things about studying history is realizing how different things were," she says. “People lived differently, they acted differently, they thought differently. When we forget that, we forget that we could think about our problems in a different way. Things have come about in a series of structural processes; they could be different."
And so began her devotion to bringing a historical focus to all of her future work. To deepen her understanding of history, Wiggin employs her love affair with language. That love dates back to her early youth when she studied French, largely inspired by her father, who had lived as a graduate student in France. From French, Wiggin progressed to German, which captivated her enough that she studied it all the way through her Ph.D. Next up are Spanish and Turkish, she hopes, noting that “for me, language is an ongoing project."
The nimbleness with which Wiggin navigates the different languages and cultures woven throughout her work is not necessarily standard in a cultural historian. She attributes it largely to her experience at the U, where she found the interdisciplinary flexibility she was looking for. “I really felt I could explore various disciplines at a time when disciplinary boundaries were in flux," she says. “That fluctuation offered an opportunity to put together formerly disparate fields of knowledge and combine things in new ways."
As for whom she has to thank for that opportunity, Wiggin hastens to mention that the U provided her a full fellowship for her studies. It was the “Cadillac of fellowships," she says, as well as proof that “Minnesota’s institutions have their priorities in the right place."