Burn Named Peter White Scholar

Stephen Burn (English) is the 2008-09 Peter White Scholar at NMU. The contemporary literature specialist is writing a book that will explore the impact of neuroscience on the American novel.


Burn said some authors have embraced the idea of using the chemical and physical structure of the brain to explain their characters’ thoughts, emotions and behavior. Others, such as Jonathan Franzen, have challenged the authority neuroscience has in our culture.


“Historically, the novel has been interested in how we understand identity, so unsurprisingly many novels were named after their central characters, such as Robinson Crusoe or Jane Eyre,” Burn said. “These books followed their characters through time, looking at how their identities were shaped by the psychological impact of past experiences. This approach works well with the way literary critics interpreted psychoanalysis, by placing an emphasis on early experience.

"But over the last 20 years or so, we have seen novelists pay more attention to nature rather than nurture, emphasizing the scientific complexities of the brain as a determining factor in human behavior. It sometimes seems as if science and literature speak different languages, but by studying the relationship between the brain and the novel I wanted to understand how one has directly drawn upon the other.”


Burn said an archive of early drafts and research by author Don DeLillo, whose first novel was released in 1971, suggests his writing was influenced by neuroscientific research reported in issues of Scientific American from that era.

“In part, I’m trying to reconstruct where the science of the mind was in the mid-'70s to gain a better understanding of what DeLillo was trying to say about it. He was interested in human reactions and how they compared with animals, particularly responses such as fear and aggression.”


At the opposite end of the spectrum is Franzen. Burn said The Corrections author parodied “pop science” books that claimed a direct link between brain chemistry and behavior and emotions. One of his favorite targets was How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard.


Burn has done extensive research on Franzen for a separate book project. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism is scheduled to be released in October.


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Updated: June 24, 2008

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