This semester I find myself, even more than usual, thinking about literary history. In addition to a new seminar for English majors, “Disney’s Victorians,” I am teaching the first half of our department’s two-part British literature survey. So while I’m partly in my Victorian wheelhouse, I’m also far afield in British literature from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.
The prospect is an exciting one. I’m teaching material I know very well, and material that’s somewhat new to me, both for the first time. In the Victorians course we’re talking a lot about reception history: one of the course goals is to explore the ways Victorian texts get re-packaged, making us more familiar with Disney’s adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” (to take one example) than with Andersen’s original story. And in the survey course we talk about why “Major English Writings” is a requirement for the major: on the first day I showed them departmental course numbers that, like those in departments across the country, are organized by period (ENG 311 is Renaissance, ENG 315 is 19th-Century, etc.) Students aren’t terribly surprised by the historical organization, but nor have they considered it much. And they especially haven’t thought about how such a thing came to be.
My thinking abut these two classes converged as I read Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013), which I’ve had on my shelf for a couple months. The book is primarily interested in the history of the single-period survey course — “Victorian Literature,” for example, rather than “Major English Writings.” The existence and persistence of such courses, Underwood argues, reveals some implicit assumptions, and perhaps some limitations, in how talk about the literature of the past.
What most appeals to me about Underwood’s book, and the reason I found it personally timely, is the way he bridges teaching and scholarship. It was the Victorians who came up with this idea of historically-organized university courses in English literature, and seeing the historical justifications for literary-historical thinking helped me think through some relationships between texts on both my syllabi.
Claiming for literary studies an earlier starting date than do critics like Gerald Graff (whose Professing Literature (1987) is perhaps the best-known history of the field), Underwood argues that university professors adopted Walter Scott’s historical imagination, and came to see literary periods as discrete rather than continuous. Literary texts “render discontinuity imaginable and meaningful … not by reducing eras to some common standard, but by dramatizing the vertiginous gulfs between eras, and then claiming vertigo itself as a source of meaning” (4). In the 1840s, English professors picked up on this discontinuity, shifting away from long-range survey courses about transitional periods and toward single-period surveys. That proved to be a powerful modality, one that continues into the twenty-first century.
Underwood’s first two chapters locate historicist modes of thinking in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, but it’s the third chapter, where he traces the curricular influence of these modes, that I found most intriguing. Underwood’s archival research unearths syllabi, course catalogs, and exam questions from incipient English literature courses at King’s College, London. The earliest survey courses, in the 1830s, covered all of English literary history in one term. The pedagogical assumption was that “students needed to understand the history of English literature from its origin in order to write well” (83). They needed, for example, to differentiate Anglo-Saxon words from Latinate ones, in order to choose the most appropriate. This endeavor, with more than a tinge of national pride, differentiated literature courses from eighteenth-century belle lettres courses, which had been organized my rhetorical goal rather than historical period.
Long-range historical courses, Underwood argues, imply an emphasis on “causal connections between broad stages of development rather than the distinct character of narrowly defined periods” (84-5). This isn’t to say that the Romantics and early Victorians didn’t consider the “distinct character” of different ages — on the contrary, the notion of a “spirit of the age” was almost a defining feature of the period. What they lacked was a curricular justification, a pedagogical reason for separating one literary period from another. This reason came from F. D. Maurice, who taught the first period survey courses at King’s College in the 1840s. Focusing on a single period (he began with a course solely on Chaucer’s “Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, and later taught “Elizabethan literature,” “literature from the reign of George III,” etc.) Maurice eschewed the developmental narrative his predecessors had established. Underwood contrasts exam questions: rather than asking about the “principal features that marked the conversion from Saxon to English,” as his predecessor had, Maurice asked his students to connect Elizabethan politics to the period’s literature (97-8). The reasoning is complicated (Underwood connects Maurice’s politics and theories of education to his theological arguments) but the result is palpable. In the 1840s, literature courses underscored national character not by linking different continuous periods with each other but by connecting the contemporary undergraduate to the particular spirit of a distant age — a connection that emphasized discontinuity as well as unity.
The remaining chapters seek to explain why these courses persist into the twenty-first century, surviving, among other challenges, the “theory wars” of the 1980s. Chapter four unearths a forgotten challenge to periodization (comparative literature emerges in the early decades of the twentieth century, but these new courses weren’t necessarily international in scope; the comparisons they made were as often between periods) while chapter five connects a genre — narratives of “parallel lives” — to critical historicism as it took shape in the 1990s.
The final chapter turns from explaining the persistence of period surveys to a possible resulting limitation: “a habit of narrating history as a sequence of contrasted cultural movements,” Underwood argues, “has caused literary studies to develop in a one-sided way, and produced blind spots that limit the development of the discipline” (159). Those familiar with Underwoods’s recent work (much of it shared on his blog) will perhaps not be shocked by his proffered solution: digital and quantitative arguments can reveal those blind spots. And resistance to such methods, he argues, may have as much to do with our firm hold on discrete periods as with our general suspicion of scientism and computer-assisted reading. Quantitative arguments “tend to produce generalizations of a fluid kind that resist translation into the familiar entities of literary-historical argument” (170). We’ve built our curricula on discrete periods; the idea that they might actually be fluid is an argument we might not welcome as much as we like to think we would. To appreciate the kinds of arguments quantitative methods will allow us to make, “we will need to overcome skepticism not just about quantitative evidence, but about historical discontinuity as such” (170).
As a scholar I find this last point compelling: I have a long-standing commitment to digital humanities, and now that my (non-digital) book is out with reviewers, I’m looking for a new project and playing with some digital tools. But the chapters on (dis)continuity and disciplinary history are more immediately relevant. The way I’ve set up the Victorians course, we’re emphasizing how a text’s reception alters the way we think about it. And though I plan on making the case for meaningful differences between (e.g.) Medieval and Renaissance literature, that syllabus is set up to emphasize continuity: we’re beginning with epics and legends, and turning to the lyric at the end of the course (progressing historically within those sections). Having read Why Literary Periods Mattered, I’ll be thinking more about how these two courses relate, and how they might help students build on or prepare for other courses in their major.