Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies

Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies

Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies

Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies

Synopsis

In the mid-nineteenth century, the study of English literature began to be divided into courses that surveyed discrete "periods." Since that time, scholars' definitions of literature and their rationales for teaching it have changed radically. But the periodized structure of the curriculum has remained oddly unshaken, as if the exercise of contrasting one literary period with another has an importance that transcends the content of any individual course.

Why Literary Periods Mattered explains how historical contrast became central to literary study, and why it remained institutionally central in spite of critical controversy about literature itself. Organizing literary history around contrast rather than causal continuity helped literature departments separate themselves from departments of history. But critics' long reliance on a rhetoric of contrasted movements and fateful turns has produced important blind spots in the discipline. In the twenty-first century, Underwood argues, literary study may need digital technology in particular to develop new methods of reasoning about gradual, continuous change.

Excerpt

His tories of liter ary S tudy tend to emphasize theoretical controversy. the subtitle of Gerald Graff’s influential Professing Literature may be An Institutional History, but even Graff’s book is in practice organized around methodological debate—notably the long debate between scholars and critics. Institutional structures occupy a smaller place in our model of the discipline, although some of those structures have turned out to be more durable than any theory. One of the most durable is periodization—an organizing principle that has shaped literary study for a century and a half. At most colleges and universities, courses that explore the literature of a single period (ranging in length from a decade to a century or more) remain the mainstay of the upper-division undergraduate curriculum. These “period surveys” can be traced back to the 1840s, and as this book will strive to show, they embody a cultivating mission that decisively shaped vernacular literary history shortly after its emergence, predating Matthew Arnold’s better-known intervention in the discipline. in the early twentieth century, periodization began to organize professional development and research as well as teaching. Graduate students were trained to specialize in a period, and hired to teach courses in that period. By the middle of the twentieth century, scholars were attending period conferences and publishing in period journals. To see that other modes of professional organization are conceivable, one has only to glance at the discipline of history itself, where the looser concept of “area” occupies the institutional role that periods occupy in literary studies. Areas often cover a longer span of time than a literary period would: a his-

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