Romanticism and the Rise of English

Romanticism and the Rise of English

Romanticism and the Rise of English

Romanticism and the Rise of English


Named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2009

Romanticism and the Rise of English addresses a peculiar development in contemporary literary criticism: the disappearance of the history of the English language as a relevant topic. Elfenbein argues for a return not to older modes of criticism, but to questions about the relation between literature and language that have vanished from contemporary investigation. His book is an example of a kind of work that has often been called for but rarely realized- a social philology that takes seriously the formal and institutional forces shaping the production of English. This results not only in a history of English, but also in a recovery of major events shaping English studies as a coherent discipline. This book points to new directions in literary criticism by arguing for the need to reconceptualize authorial agency in light of a broadened understanding of linguistic history.


In 1967, William Riley Parker, a distinguished Miltonist and editor of PMLA, allegorized the birth of academic English:

English was born about 100 years ago. Its mother, the eldest daughter of Rhet
oric, was Oratory … Its father was Philology or what we now call linguistics.
Their marriage … was shortlived, and English is therefore the child of a
broken home. This unhappy fact accounts, perhaps, for its early feeling of in
dependence and its later bitterness toward both parents. I date the break with
the mother … not from the disgraceful affair she had with Elocution, but
rather from the founding of the Speech Association of America in 1914 … I
date the break with the father, not from his happy marriage to Anthropol
ogy, but from the founding of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924, and
the developing hostility of literary scholars to non-prescriptive grammar, new
terminology, and the rigors of language study. (“Where Do English Depart
ments Come From?” 340)

Although Parker's soap opera simplifies English's rise as a discipline, it pinpoints the bitterness that literary criticism feels toward older forms of the discipline. This bitterness goes beyond the usual boundary markings of any discipline: historians can still respect work over a century old, and psychologists routinely refer to William James's findings. Most literature professors, however, would think it ridiculous to be held responsible for philology, much less oratory. Such older modes are not hallowed ancestors but figures of contempt.

Of the two parents described by Parker, Father Philology has been far more threatening than Mother Oratory. In histories of English studies . . .

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