Sophia Basaldua-Sun is an independent scholar of comparative literature. She received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stony Brook University. She lives in New York, where she spends her days working for Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. As a comparatist she works on Argentine, U.S., and French literature with a focus on turn-of-the-century prose depicting New York, Buenos Aires, and Paris. Her research goals are to contribute to the interdisciplinary work being done to connect urban studies and literary studies, and her contribution has been to explore the decolonial possibilities of the urban signifier “metropolis.” Her work has appeared in journals like The Journal of Urban Cultural Studies and Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She’s also the creator of The Metropolitanist, an academic microblog on Instagram, where she shares her research, reading, and where she used to review academic monographs.
How do you incorporate Digital Humanities / New Media scholarship in your practice of 19th Century Studies? While I don’t work on either the Digital Humanities or New Media scholarship, I have been moved by those areas to consider how New Media can be harnessed as a platform for public communication, which led to @TheMetropolitanist. There’s a huge appetite on Instagram for books, and communities devoted to reading classic novels (especially from the nineteenth century), imitating scholarly life, and studying. There is also a robust world of scholars who use the platform as a medium for public communication about their research. Looking at Instagram, and its book communities helped me to realize that there is a large public audience very interested not just in reading, but reading thoughtfully and critically. I’m also fascinated by the way that learning is made more approachable on the platform through aesthetics. Comparative literature is a largely unknown, and often misunderstood field, so I thought it would be fun to participate in the world of #Bookstagram with the intent of drawing awareness to the field of comparative literature in order to invite people to consider the comparative nature of their reading lists. The project has kept me focused on my research when, as an independent scholar, I don’t have a traditional department to support or incentivize my scholarship. It has been immensely heartening to communicate with a constantly growing audience of intellectually curious people who show up and participate voluntarily. Many of them have started buying and reading academic monographs because they want more. So, participating in Instagram has confirmed my sense that people, in their spare time, continue to be really interested in the humanities.
What story about the nineteenth century do you always tell your students/peers? All things Argentina. I always really enjoy telling my students and peers about the urban transformation of Buenos Aires during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and how that was represented in the literature of the period. Because I primarily speak to and teach folks studying and reading in English, people don’t know a lot about Buenos Aires and Argentina more broadly. In world literature, Latin American literature is largely ignored until the Boom Writers of the 1960s. There’s this misconception that nothing interesting happened in Argentina, or in Latin America, until the literary experimentation of the Boom generation, so a lot of the novels that I read and work on were never translated. That’s difficult when teaching an audience that doesn’t read Spanish because it means that, in order to teach comparative literature students about Latin America I have to explain the context thoroughly. I’m currently working on a presentation for the Edith Wharton Society’s standing MLA roundtable, that explores Wharton’s peripheral mention of Buenos Aires in The Age of Innocence (which is set in the 1870s then has a time jump to the end of the century). It turns out that mention corresponds directly to the Panic of 1890 in Argentina, so one story I’m really enjoying telling all of my colleagues is how Julius Beaufort’s story ends at the site of another economic crisis, which, for people who haven’t read the novel Beaufort is sort of a harbinger of small-scale banking and economic crises. It’s a fitting end for him but one that people today don’t realize is directly rooted in history because we don’t study Latin American histories.
What is your favorite film set in the nineteenth century? This is sort of the long-eighteenth century, but it was a nineteenth-century novel numerically. I really enjoyed the 2020 adaptation of Emma. It was the first version of Emma—aside from Clueless—that wasn’t precious about who Emma is as a character. It’s rare to see an Emma who gets to be a character rather than a protagonist. Also, it was just a really stylish film.
If you could borrow any nineteenth-century painting from a museum for one year and hang it in your home, what would it be and why? I would take Almond Blossoms by Van Gogh. I have a lot of fond memories of seeing Van Gogh paintings with my husband at the Met and at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I like the colors of Almond Blossoms and the feeling that while the painting has dimensions, it also feels visually expansive and continuous in a way that appeals to me. I also prefer impressionism to realism. My taste in paintings is abstract, which isn’t a nineteenth century aesthetic but the impressionists are a movement in that direction.
Which nineteenth-century fictional character do you wish were real? Ugh, yuck, none of them. I love reading nineteenth-century novels but I don’t think I would want to meet any of the characters I’ve read about, and that’s exactly what makes them compelling characters but maybe not palatable people. I love Jane Eyre, but I don’t think I would want to spend an evening with Jane or Mr. Rochester. Maybe Natasha Rostov. She seems like a good mix of fun and thoughtful, particularly in the early chapters of War and Peace, where she’s a raucous child pretending to be an adult. I really like the description of her posing as a society lady at a party her parents throw for her and her mother’s name day. I would like to be at a dinner party where she insists on knowing the dessert in the middle of the meal.