Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Claude J. Summers

Ted-Larry Pebworth


Introduction

This volume explores some of the significant theoretical and practical fault lines and controversies in the field of seventeenth-century literary study. The turn into the twenty-first century is an appropriate time to take stock of the state of the field. As part of that stock-taking, we need to assess both where literary study of the early modern period has been and where it might desirably go. Hence, many of the essays in this collection look both backward and forward. They chart the changes in the field over the past half century, while also looking forward to more change in the future. Indeed, most of the essays—either implicitly or explicitly—offer desiderata for the field.

Some of the essays collected here explore the fault lines—or points of friction, vulnerability, and division—that emerged in literary study of all periods at the end of the twentieth century, such as theory, gender, sexuality, race, and religion, while others are more narrowly focused on fault lines and controversies peculiar to the study of Renaissance and seventeenth-century literature. Even as they confront large issues, however, nearly all of them also examine and illuminate particular works of literature. That is, these essays engage theory, but they also illustrate their points concretely by enacting practical criticism of works ranging from Bacon's New Atlantis to Milton's Samson Agonistes and from Calvinist meditations to Marvell's “Mower against Gardens.”

What emerges from the collection as a whole is a sense of the field's dynamism and vitality. Rather than the exhaustion or ennui characteristic of fin de siècle assessment, the dominant mood of these essays is a cautious optimism. The contributors are by no means complacent, but they share a belief that the fault lines that have emerged in the field are variously and valuably instructive. Understanding divisions and controversies is itself a worthy exercise, but such understanding also represents opportunity. Exposing fault lines is a means of acknowledging differences and disagreements without covering them up or papering them over; it is also a prerequisite to bridging them. One

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