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Untold Futures at MLA

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In anticipation of the Modern Language Association Annual Convention this January 9—12 2020 in Seattle, we asked J.K. Barret, author of Untold Futures: Time and Literary Culture in Renaissance England, three questions about his research.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book? 

I had many “Aha!” moments while researching this book, but probably the most thrilling involved finding phrases used in the culture more broadly that reflected the literary ideas I was tracing. I remember not totally believing my eyes when I first came across the proverbial phrase “promise is debt,” or the grammar book designation “second future.” Those discoveries helped me build the case both for a broad cultural conversation and for literature’s capacity to inform the culture. As a researcher, there’s nothing quite like hitting upon phrases used in the period that actually put my scholarly intuitions into words. 

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now? 

Writing a book is like doing a jigsaw puzzle without the box. Except that implies that there is a box when really it’s more like you’re creating the picture that will eventually be on the box, cutting the pieces, and trying to put the puzzle together all at the same time. You might have a guess about the picture, but it’s also crucial to stay flexible because the picture needs to change as your expertise grows. I wish I’d known that not knowing what the finished puzzle would depict was actually my best resource for crafting compelling and unpredictable arguments.

3. How do you wish you could change your field?

Considerations of historical consciousness go back a long way and stake a variety of claims, but they consistently probe the extent to which we are all, whoever we are, products of our time. What surprised me most as I researched this book was the pervasive tendency to approach “time” and “history” as synonyms, especially in early modern studies. Untold Futures is part of a growing body of critical literature that investigates the new perspectives we uncover and create when we work to tease those terms apart, or even abandon the presumption that talking about time necessarily means talking about history.


J.K. Barret, Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of Untold Futures: Time and Literary Culture in Renaissance England (Cornell University Press, cloth and ebook 2016, paperback 2019). Her essays have appeared in edited collections and journals including Shakespeare Quarterly, ELH, and English Literary Renaissance. Her current research has received fellowship support from sources including the Huntington Library.

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