Recent Studies in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature

Article excerpt

It has become commonplace for authors of this annual essayreview to bemoan the lack of coherence among the hundred or so books that cross their desks, even when they plan to conclude their essays by assuring their readers that such dialogic variety testifies to the vitality of the field. Never one to resist an opportunity to break with tradition, I want to begin by suggesting that the criticism of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature seems rather settled within the broad parameters that were defined a decade ago as "new." The real faultlines in the field no longer lie between the "new" and the "old" eighteenth centuries but within critical paradigms which have assimilated the vocabulary and at least some of the principles of the antifoundationalist approaches of the 1980s. If such an assertion upsets those traditionalists who have manned the battlements against feminists, new historicists, and cultural materialists, they can take comfort in the fact that many of the good books written last year by junior scholars situate their arguments against the now-established critics who introduced these approaches to eighteenth-century studies tent or fifteen years ago. In general, recent studies of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature fall into one of two broad categories: those which appropriate the vocabularies of feminism and cultural studies in order to return to formalist considerations of literary texts and those which read a variety of texts and practices through and within the material culture of the period. If much of this criticism remains bound to traditional narratives of the rise of Enlightenment modernity, the best studies published during the last year contribute to ongoing redefinitions of what we consider literature and literary criticism. Because many of these works also stretch traditional generic boundaries and historical limits, any effort to shoehorn them into strict taxonomies is bound to seem forced. Consequently, rather than impose abstract organizational schemes on recent critical studies, I shall try to consider works in their conceptual proximity, indicating, in an age when most of us work too hard and read less than we should, which seem particularly valuable in gauging the ongoing metamorphoses of Restoration and eighteenth-century studies.

Arguably, the most significant development in the field is the rapid ascendancy of what we might call the new economic criticism. Although, in many respects, this body of work can be considered an extension or offshoot of marxist or post-marxist theory, more than a few of its practitioners distance themselves from--or disavow--what they take as old-fashioned dialectical materialism. To some extent, the current scholarly fascination with debt and credit can be seen as a sociological phenomenon as the graying young guns of the 1980s (the old "New Eighteenth Century") contend with child care costs, mortgages, poormouthing from well-paid administrators, the legacy of Reagan's debt, and the consequences of institutional downsizing. In the 1990s, after all, eighteenth-century tracts on the South Sea and Mississippi Bubbles begin to read suspiciously like the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. In this regard, the new economic criticism offers a kind of capitalist regression therapy, with several astute critics investigating what they see as the traumatic primal scene of late capitalism--the advent of a modern world system predicated on the exploitation of non-European peoples and natural resources and the endless extension of credit to forestall payment on a structurally permanent debt.

The most ambitious of these works may be James Thompson's Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel. Thompson reads several canonical novelists of the eighteenth century to counter the tendency of previous literary histories to reinscribe rather than theorize the novel's assessments of social and individual as well as economic value. …