Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770

Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770

Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770

Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770

Excerpt

The English literary canon achieved its definitive shape during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The idea of national tradition to which we have given a final burial was born at that time from debates over the past, Eighteenth-century literary critics looked to older works in response to a prolonged and pronounced transformation: the opening of the cultural product for a nation of readers. What we have learned to call “the canon” – a pantheon of high-cultural works from the past – came into being as a contradiction. Modernity generates tradition. The swelling of the book trade, the passing of aristocratic authority, the rise in literacy, the prominence of women writers and readers, the professionalization of criticism, together provoked over the course of the century a recourse to older works as national heritage. Canon formation, then as now, partook in wide-ranging debates about the nature of the cultural community. Critics weighed the value of older works and pondered their relation to modern writing. They also contemplated the character of modern readers, and examined how the education, class, and gender of the reading audience had changed over time, The paradoxical establishment of tradition out of a sense of modernity happened when literary culture was seen to be under considerable duress, even in crisis. Whereas the new literary and social world was unpredictable, and readers and genres no longer conformed to a settled pattern, works written before the onset of cultural modernity exhibited a contrasting splendor.

The decisive reception of the English literary past was settled during the mid-eighteenth century. Years of critical discussion coalesced then into a durable model of literary history and aesthetic value. Consider the following pronouncement by Joseph Warton in 1756: “Our English poets may I think be disposed in four different classes and degrees. In the first class, I would place, first, our only . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.