Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century

By Wall, Cynthia | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century

Wall, Cynthia, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

  BEGI'NNER. n.s.{...}
  1. He that gives the first cause, or original, to any thing.
  {...} Hook.
  <----------------------- | {J. keys in def. and More q. from IL.}
  [begin strikethrough]2.[end strikethrough] <3> An unexperienced
  attempter; {...}
  --Samuel Johnson, Dictionary (1755)

This definition of "beginner" is a transcription from Allen Red-dick's facsimile edition of Samuel Johnson's Unpublished Revisions to the "Dictionary of the English Language"--one of the treasures in my lap from this experience--and it rather neatly formats as well as defines what I expect is a fairly common experience of a first-time reviewer for SEL's "Recent Studies." In the attempt to "give the first cause, or original, to anything"--picking out "the especially important publications" and representing "what your colleagues should know about recent work," (1) one then confronts the alps of scholarship towering behind those hundred books, and might well feel transformed into "an unexperienced attempter," riddled with ellipses, inarticulately dashed, crossed with revisions, self-bracketed, interpolating with hesitant small fonts, and full of quotations from other people. At one moment you're a Lilliputian, staring open-mouthed at the massive, threatening form in front of you; later in the process you're Gulliver brandishing his mighty powers on the Brobdingnagian table. So, caveat in place and Gulliver-like, I begin.

And I will begin with a real satisfaction about where things are going; increasingly over the last five to ten years scholarship has been retooling the fine art of detailed historicism, of archival research, and of a renewed formalism, and reassessing (I refuse to say "interrogating") our ideological orthodoxies that calcified out of the important revisionary work of the '70s and '80s. The most striking pattern to emerge in what I consider to be the strongest and most original work of 2005 is the emphasis on "agency." Women, on a closer look into the records, were doing more, writing more, effecting more, even hitting more; victimhood was often a matter of deliberate, crafted rhetoric for the author (male as well as female) and sometimes for the working classes (Betty A. Schellenberg, Paula R. Backscheider, Jody Greene, Karen Harvey, Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Jane Duran). Texts that we have mistrusted for decades, such as travelers' narratives, turn out in some cases to be less exaggerated than we thought, according to more recent scientific analyses (Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet); attitudes we have come to take for granted (imperialist, for example) have richer textures and surprising champions (Tony Crowley, Jill H. Casid, Vincent Carretta). In a perhaps related critical shift, there seems to be a growing number of single-author studies again--Johnson, Henry Fielding, Alexander Pope, Mary Wollstonecraft, Daniel Defoe, the Earl of Rochester, Olaudah Equiano, George Psalmanazar, John Dryden, Edmund Burke, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift, all star in their own feature-lengths. And there is also an increasing and welcome attention to and reconsideration of form, particularly notable in books by David A. Brewer, Helen Deutsch, Jayne Lewis and Maximillian E. Novak, Michael McKeon, David Marshall, Pat Rogers, John Allen Stevenson, Howard D. Weinbrot, Abigail Williams, and an article by David H. Solkin in Land, Nation, and Culture, to speak only of the works reviewed here. The formulas are varied; the stories are precise; the metanarratives are broken down in the face of counterexamples.


Rich work has been done in genre studies this year. Marshall, Brewer, McKeon, and Nancy Armstrong have published on or around the novel; Backscheider and Williams have expanded the poetic terrain; Weinbrot and co-authors Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh have brought classical bearings up front; and Peter de Bolla, Nigel Leask, and David Simpson have edited a profoundly interesting collection of interdisciplinary studies.

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