Was there ever, in fact, a ‘Cambridge English’? Not as in ‘Oxford English’, which refers in its most general use to a manner of speaking: but in the sense of a distinctive and coherent course and method of study. There has been an English Tripos in Cambridge since 1917, and an independent Tripos and Faculty since 1926. I realised recently that I had been in contact with English at Cambridge for two-thirds of this history, since I came as an undergraduate in 1939. Moreover, for the last twenty years or so I have, in some problematic ways, been near the centre of its affairs. It is then at first sight curious that I still look at what is called ‘Cambridge English’ as a historical phenomenon: as something happening, throughout, at a certain distance.
One reason is easy to find. Through some accident of time or temperament I always arrive rather late for Golden Ages. One of the first things I was told in Cambridge, having grown up in what seemed to me a significant rural culture, was that significant rural culture had disappeared a few years before I was born. Again the heroic or infamous period of Cambridge Communism, in the 1930s, was, when I arrived, just disappearing into the altered circumstances of the war. Similarly with Cambridge English. What Basil Willey, supported by Muriel Bradbrook and others, has called its Heroic or Golden Age ran from 1928 to somewhere in the 1930s. Tillyard saw loss or decline from about 1930. F.R. Leavis, in 1943, offered a sketch for an English School, to realise the essential values of the Cambridge English initiative, by way of explicit contrast with most of what was actually happening. From these authorities, who knew in direct ways the first third of the history, it is easy to get a sense that Cambridge English is a matter either of the past or of the future: in any case not something you can walk round a windy corner and actually find.
At the beginning, this did not worry me. Indeed, I was largely unaware, between 1939 and 1941 when I left for the Army, that I was following, or might rather earlier have been following, or with some necessary redirection might still follow, a distinctive and innovating course. Part One of the Tripos was a broadly unsurprising extension and consolidation of the work already done in a small rural Welsh grammar school. It was only when I came back, in 1945, not only to read Part Two but also to hear all around me the controversies about Leavis, and the conflicting accounts of that tangled earlier history, that I became conscious of the disputed idea of ‘Cambridge English’ and at the same time aware of new kinds of work and challenge in what had seemed, at a respectful distance, a relatively straightforward academic course, which occupied only a limited part of one’s life and interests. When I returned in 1961, as a lecturer, the general situation was remarkably similar: as disputed, as tangled and as unresolved.
In fact, since 1946, at a good distance from Cambridge, I had been trying to find my own way through the questions defined by that post-war experience. The specific outcome was Culture and Society, which was also, I suppose, the occasion for my return. I want to look again at the general idea of ‘Cambridge English’: at what it was and was not, at what forces shaped and moved through it, at what happened in different phases and is still happening. It is then a sign of a certain dislocation – a differently experienced dislocation – that I begin with the unfamiliar question: was there ever, in fact, a Cambridge English?
One of the few certainties is that it was late. Cambridge was one of the last British universities to make any proper provision for English studies. That should not surprise us. Like Oxford but in this even more rigidly, it had steadily resisted the introduction of virtually everything beyond the received Classics and Mathematics. In the late 19th century, among the eventual newer Triposes, Natural Science and History were among the least esteemed. A conventional majority could usually be mobilised for the status quo, by one after another established and prejudiced authority. The first limited introduction of English was, ironically, by way of Old English, and later of philology. Yet ‘out of business’, so to say, and then as a part of the new Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos, actual work began to build up. In this relatively unprovided period there was the Cambridge History of English Literature and there were college lectures on writers by a range of men with other formal commitments. The small course, however, tied the study of some English literature to a main body of work in language and philology.
The principal innovation of the phase from 1917 can then be as well stated negatively as positively. Through a series of changes it became the first course to allow a practical separation between literary and linguistic studies. This has been described so often as a liberation, an emancipation, an unchaining, that it will seem lacking in piety to pause and inspect it. Certainly the available accounts of the linguistic work being done, in comparative philology and morphology, indicate good reasons for impatience. Yet when we look back from the present situation, in which the distance of literary from linguistic studies is a central problem – and in which, incidentally, modern linguistics has been given only a marginal position in Cambridge – there are serious questions to ask.
Of course it was absurd that there should be no organised study of English writing in its most general respects. The drive towards English studies, though always flanked by philology and by some 19th-century Anglo-Saxonism of a nationalist kind, had been in general broad and humane. The interests that came to be defined as aesthetic and cultural, or earlier as spiritual and historical, turned readily to so much available and valuable work. It was indeed these interests which produced the new 19th-century sense of Literature, as a body of imaginative writing which represented these human qualities. Behind that again was the late 18th-century sense of English Literature, a national literature, as distinct from the earlier Classical and European emphases. English studies in the schools, in the 19th century, included the history and the geography as well as the literature and the language of this self-conscious and consciously taught nation.
In the universities, the major humane interests were still to be satisfied in Classics, which had also its own strict linguistic disciplines running through from the private schools. English, in that university context, could at first be most easily acknowledged by a linguistic discipline of the same kind, in Old English and its relations. But the emphasis on Literature, and the demand for it, were building up in other parts of the society. Newer universities were tentatively admitting it, but there were also two now often disregarded social forces: in the new adult education movement, and among women. English Literature was asked for everywhere in the new university extension classes, and people with a different kind of education – as Churton Collins argued at Oxford, Collins whose Study of English Literature was described by Tillyard as a text for the principles on which the Cambridge English Tripos was founded in 1917 – were needed to teach them. There was also a major interest in this kind of literary study by women: a direct interest; a special interest, among teachers of English studies in the schools; but also an interest defined from the excluded position of women in that phase of the culture, an exclusion most frequently overcome precisely in the making and reading of literature. Thus when we read of the insufficient ‘rigour’ of English studies – as one among many masculinist terms – or of English as ‘the women’s subject’, we should at last call this bluff. It was in areas of active and frustrated intelligence, outside the narrow class-based and sex-discriminatory culture of the 19th-century university, that these new forms of learning were first sought and found. It may be significant that it was only after the war that young men, back from the trenches, could fight an enclosed pedantry with a full heart and vigour. They could even, like Tillyard, in the significant and contradictory language of the exclusion, talk of ‘the right to sport in every glade and green pasture’.
It was in this spirit that what has been called ‘Cambridge English’ arrived, bearing, almost inevitably, the marks of the experience of exclusion. It was in effect accidental that it was so quickly separated from language studies. The Professor of Anglo-Saxon, who had begun as a Classic, thought modern English would and even should become the new centre of humane education, and so did not oppose the ending of compulsory Old English. The six philologists, meanwhile, included two Germans and three women: an improbable phalanx, at that date, against the new campaign. Indeed the prejudice with which Tillyard writes of the Germans and the women is even now astonishing. But what was coming in carried its own cultural freight, in the difficult concepts of Literature and of Englishness. There had been an Anglo-Saxonist nationalism, and one man had significantly described it as ‘reversing the Renaissance’. What now happened, in very complex ways, was a redefinition of ‘true English’, partly behind the cover of the separation from philology. The English ruling class had long traced its real ancestry to the Classical world and especially to Rome, as distinct from its actual physical ancestors. Culturally – and with many evident reasons – a comparable real ancestry was now define. It was made easier by the fact that between 1917 and 1926 English was mainly intended as a Part Two, usually after a Classics Part One. But there were secular as well as conjunctural reasons. Tragedy – which, incidentally, had been taught, from Aeschylus to Ibsen, as a university course in Leeds in 1907 – made sense as a subject in Cambridge because it could move from Greek and Roman drama to Shakespeare. The English Moralists were to be headed by Plato, Aristotle, Paul and Augustine.
What was being traced was a genuine ancestry of thought and form, with the linguistic connections assumed from the habits of the private schools. It is not so much this cultural connection that counts: it is the long gap, in the culture, history and languages of these islands, across which this persuasive formulation simply jumped. ‘We should know the poets of our own land,’ but then not Taliesin or Dafydd ap Gwilym. ‘Of our own people’, but then not the author of Beowulf. It is a complex matter just because, in restoring Classical and European emphases, as in its vigorous inclusion of comparative literature and especially French and Italian, the Cambridge course was indeed avoiding what by this time was being called a ‘provincial’ limitation. Yet its own province, rich as it was in resources, was defined in ways that were bound to prejudice the culture and history of its own land and peoples. The carriers of a literate tradition, now fully acknowledged as autonomous in modern English, were in this very function at a deliberate distance from their whole actual and differentially literate culture. If all that was being excluded was a narrow morphology, the case would be different, but in the eventual definition of Cambridge English as the carrier of a consciously minority culture there is something much more important than Beowulf’s revenge: there is the seed, within the liberation, of most of the subsequent and now notorious conflicts.
We often fail to see this, in its connection with the subsequent distance from full linguistic and cultural studies, because in the experimental and innovative Twenties two significant initiatives were made and were very widely influential. These are, first, what amounted to a redefinition of criticism, and, second, a new and vigorous emphasis on what, within the new autonomous province, was defined as ‘life and thought’. That formulation, incidentally, derives from the Modern Language papers, though there were variations, as in 1917: ‘Literature, Life and Thought’ for the Renaissance; ‘Life, Literature and Thought’ for the Middle Ages. Each tendency was so strong, and produced such notable work, that it seems easy to give a positive definition of Cambridge English from them. Yet eventually what was to matter was the relations between these two tendencies: a history of hoped-for unification and at times of bitter conflict.
It is ironic that the redefinition of criticism happened mainly because of the intervention – again, in local terms, almost accidental – of a quite different kind of thinking, drawn from philosophy, psychology and physiology. Without Richards, and with the quite different exception of Leavis, there is little evidence to suppose that the new school would have been more than an extension of the humane and scholarly appreciation which was already growing in English studies everywhere. There would have been the usual changes of interest and tone and vocabulary that occur between generations, but even after Richards and Leavis – and it usually seems a very long way after them – it is not clear that the majority work of the Cambridge English School, in its virtues as much as in anything else, is radically discontinuous with that of the humane scholars and critics who worked elsewhere and before 1917. Yet, for a while decisively, Richards was there. His central achievement, I still believe, was to show the element of collusion in just this tradition of appreciation: the informed, assured and familiarised discourse of people talking among themselves about works which from a shared social position they had been privileged to know. There is an element of brutality in Richards’s famous protocols, in which an assured taste and competence were challenged by the absence of the informing signs and tips. And it does say a lot for the generation who shared the experiments with him that the devastating results were accepted, learned from and drawn on to stimulate a new emphasis on close and precise and challengeable reading. That remarkable emphasis is by any standards a major educational contribution.
Yet it was called Practical Criticism, and there are then two problems. Practical, to begin with, because there was also Theory, the two, in Richards’s work, not only connected but inseparable. As it happens, there are good reasons for rejecting Richards’s actual theories: but for rejecting them theoretically, rather than in a slide away to ‘practical’ as not only self-sufficient but educationally and even morally superior. Over the years this slide has happened, and this, even more than the fact that some of the work was reduced to school routines, explains the dissatisfaction since the Sixties with what is still, in its best terms, the most important element of the Cambridge English course. The consequent resumption of theory, on Richards’s scale – not only theory of literature or of criticism but of fundamental processes of language, meaning, composition and communication – was greeted in its own backyard with cries of ‘alien’, ‘extra-literary’, ‘metacritical’, ‘sociological’, ‘Marxist’, ‘structuralist’ and God knows what. These were the sort of shouts that Cambridge English, in the Twenties, heard from elsewhere and for a time rejected. The theory and the practice, working together, were providing powerful examples of the reading that was necessary if Literature – the assumed common point of reference – was to come through at last as itself.
But it was that innocent formulation – ‘coming through as itself’ – which concealed more fundamental problems and tendencies. The description ‘practical criticism’ concealed – and continues to conceal – two very different methods and intentions. As Richards formally recognised, these were, first, the analysis of a work to discover its verbal organisation – a process of reading – and second, the ‘evaluation’ of a work – the discovery of its ‘merit’. It is now clear that Richards’s real contribution was in the first of these – analysis – and that it is in this sense that he connects with later work of a different kind in linguistics and in communication theory. Indeed this was his own real trajectory, for what he founded in Cambridge he also decided to leave: ‘decided’, as he put it, ‘to back out of literature, as a subject, completely’. Meanwhile – with the methods of analysis linked to its own version of evaluation – there was the confusion of ‘criticism’.
It is easy to see how the two were originally thought to cohere. Richards’s theory of language and of reading was based on a notion of trainable individual competence which had the desirable effect of ordering and harmonising mental impulses. The version of Literature which he shared with others was in terms not only of a ‘storehouse of recorded values’ but of these as especially indicating ‘when habitual narrowness of interests or confused bewilderment are replaced by an intricately wrought composure’. It could then be believed that analysis of the ‘intricately wrought’ was necessarily integrated with that clarification of response which was ‘composure’, which in turn was at the centre of a theory of value. This is a plausible kind of liberal rationalism, deployed in an acknowledged crisis of culture and belief and offering ‘the values of Literature’ as, literally, the way to save us. Ironically, however, what came through was not, except intermittently and selectively, Literature, but Criticism. For to read works of literature is to find many things other than ‘intricately wrought composure’: indeed to find – in terms of either inherent or transferable values – in effect every kind of position and valuation, of belief and disbelief, of resolution and disturbance and settlement and conflict and disorder. But of course that was what the singular formulation was for: to disguise the real diversity in the interest of a new secular absolute. There was more possibility of a single position in criticism, but only if the corresponding abstraction of the ‘trained and discriminating reader’ was moved and taught into place: that of the developed individual who had moved beyond all other conditions and experiences to this achieved and saving clarity and composure.
Obviously this could not last, though the pretension lasted. The virtues of a genuinely enlightening kind of analysis were confused and often overborne by a new stance in which literary criticism was offered as – and locally believed to be – the central activity in all human judgment. This is why there was so much resistance, later, to work which showed the diversity and conflict of the social conditions of both writing and reading, and to work which questioned, from linguistics, the simple autonomy of the text and, from psychology, the settled subjectivity of the individual reader. On the other hand, with a clear role defined by the supposed unity of analysis and evaluation – now not only literary but the most general kind of discovery of values – it is not surprising that one man of great capacity and conviction assumed this role, though in doing so he precipitated the long overt crisis of Cambridge English.
Leavis really believed, in ways that made him break with Richards at just this crucial point, that close reading and analysis of literature was the discovery and animation of the most central human values, and from that position he developed, not an ‘intricately wrought composure’, but at once a drastic discrimination and a militant assault in the whole field of culture and society. This he could only do by converting the ‘storehouse of values’ to a highly selective ‘great tradition’, with Literature thus further specialised, adamantly refusing literary works which did not serve these purposes. But what was so bad about the Cambridge opposition to him was that, if still in his own way, he was taking the original proposition with a seriousness and commitment which had always been formally claimed, but which when it was seen in action – when it was fully spelled out – was evidently disruptive of the milder habits of quietly precise reading and solitary or intimately shared composure which were always the more likely academic outcome.
Could it really amount to this – that to learn to read literary works by close analysis involved you in an assault on a whole system of social and cultural and academic values? Of course not, most of Cambridge concluded, and by accident they were right. But with the supposed unity of analysis and evaluation under the title of Practical Criticism now so roughly demonstrated by an obviously otherwise-conditioned and powerful critic, they could, for intellectual adequacy, only go on to some new position or go back and disentangle the knot so strongly tied in the Twenties. Some attempts were made, but the Golden Age – the age of that illusory identity – had in any case gone, and what succeeded it was at once more consolidated and more modest: the filling-out of a relatively orthodox course in the history and criticism of English literature, supported by a new professionalism of critical commentary and scholarship. On these reduced terms, it did – as it was usually put – reputable and respectable work. It continued to attract and to educate large numbers of able students. Indeed, its preoccupying problem, from the Thirties to the Seventies, was the co-existence of this success with the severe internal dissensions and the continuing public rows which were residual from the unresolved problems and challenging initiatives of its experimental period, and which were quite enough, when added to old suspicions of the subject, to allow the University to limit its teaching resources for the large body of work it was doing.
What first attracted the next stage of controversy was a matter of the initiative, not in analysis and criticism, but in what was called ‘life and thought’. It can be seen that in the Twenties, in the supposedly straightforward transition from competent analysis to clear minds and humane values, this raised few contemporary problems. Richards, though he chose his examples from a wide historical range, was always essentially synchronic in his methods: clear reading and clear writing were absolute supra-historical values, as in his eventual version of Platonism. At the same time, since there had been no source of professional English lecturers, historians as well as classics were teaching the subject, and with their colleagues were putting the history alongside the literature in straightforward empirical ways. There was a notable development of intellectual history, by Willey, in work which retains its full value but which needs two other things saying about it. First, that it stabilised, in its very titles, a weak version of the complex and dynamic relations actually involved in any full commitment to ‘literature, life and thought’. What was now increasingly called ‘Background’ sat unproblematically, and with its own kinds of enlightenment, with what ‘Literature’ was practically taken to mean: the ‘storehouse of values’, and now the philosophical alongside the literary – modestly alongside, indeed backgrounded whenever, in the emphases of the School, ‘literature as such’ was foregrounded. Secondly, it very significantly halted, in those terms, at the 19th century: at the period which quite openly connected with the social and cultural and intellectual formations which were active and contentious in a contemporary urban, industrial and in some ways democratic society. Willey took his own deep religious and related interests into the 19th century, in a continuation of the kind of attention he had given to the earlier periods. But the full life and thought of the period after the Industrial Revolution was in a different dimension, and it was here that the crisis of the formulation began.
In the Twenties there had been another apparently simple version of the formulation. Much of the critical work was in close relation to a new modernism in contemporary writing and especially to a cultural and pseudo-historical version of this in Eliot: the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ and the consequent fall from the 17th century. In the dominant critical practice, a new literary history, from the Metaphysicals to the Modernists, was powerfully argued, the more so because the selection answered so well to the more teasing kinds of reading and analysis. A cultural history followed, which, in either its weak general versions or its strong particular version in Leavis, ratified the position of the school: the best literature of the past against a disordered and destructive present – thus a literary-critical school assuming a necessary minority status but carrying the values of the past and of a possibly emergent present in its role as guardians and witnesses of the significant literature. In its weak version, this has gone on, intellectually untroubled. Until very recent times, this role fitted well with the idea of a necessary and privileged humane university – an idea which, seeing danger only from radicals and levellers, was eventually to find its assumption of privilege within a traditional social order undercut by the real social order. This real social order had come through not so much from the 17th as from the 19th century, and its world was one of the open struggle of classes, in education as elsewhere, and of the fierce priorities of industrial capitalism: a world with very different ideas of what universities are for.
Thus the ‘life and thought’ formulation came in practice to depend on very simple and transient positions: the stabilities implied in the idea of ‘background’, with ideas and for that matter social orders fairly placidly succeeding each other, and with writers doing the really important work, making literature from these materials; and the conviction of being a virtuous minority, against commercialism – the preferred word for capitalism – but also against ‘popular taste’ and what Richards, in those early days, called ‘the more sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loudspeaker’. Actual history became, as in both F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, a kind of cultural history which traced the long fall and ratified the new minority – a persuasive and eventually popular doctrine, but also one which initiated kinds of analysis of contemporary culture which were eventually to be developed in quite different directions. Increasingly, however, it came to seem to have little to do with the study of literature. The general position could be assumed, but the real work was to get on with the directly literary studies.
Except that there, still, in those received regulations, was the direction of ‘life and thought’. How could you do it, students and others asked, when you already had more than enough authors to work on, whether or not at one a week. It was all so vague. Thought, perhaps – that would be in texts. But Life?
There was indeed no way through these questions from the position which Literature, in its now specialised sense, had been assigned. For this was where the long separation from language studies had its most serious effects. Theoretically and practically, it is clearly in language that the decisive practices and relations which are projected as ‘literature’, ‘life’ and ‘thought’ are real and discoverable. On the other hand, if you start from the projections, you get either the artificial concept of ‘literary language’ or simply the forms of thinking about ‘life and thought’, or about ‘society’, which develop when the full practice of language and its active composition have been reduced to a representational or a marginal aesthetic status.
There had been work in Cambridge which pointed in more active directions. Leavis, by contrast with Richards, had extended – to be sure, in his own way – the analysis of examples of writing to a historical dimension: the practice which became known as ‘dating’, when it was set as an exercise, but which was described by one very senior member as a parlour game and, significantly, was, in time, dropped, for the most part, from practical criticism. It is not the only way, but its emphasis was entirely right. Again, Muriel Bradbrook’s work on the conventions and institutions of English Renaissance drama provided a base for a genuinely historical and linguistic analysis of the deep composition of the plays: a different kind of reading of these oral and multivocal forms – of their linguistic diversity and yet of their shaping and changing rules – which is now again being developed. From either of these initiatives there were ways through to the full and informed inquiry which the ‘literature, life and thought’ formulation required and challenged. But both the distance from modern linguistic studies, which were beginning to offer some more precise and varied forms of analysis, and the theoretical block represented by a conception of literature as a series of authors to whom there must, must, be ‘personal evaluative response’ or its available facsimile – both of these shut off or at best postponed bodies of knowledge and ways of seeing and thinking which could at last fully substantiate English studies, in a reach wider and deeper than could be found in the now largely reproductive professional routines of an old literary criticism and literary history.
Language in history: that full field. But even within a more specialised emphasis, language produced in works through conventions and institutions which, properly examined, are the really active society. Not a background to be produced for annotation where on a private reading – naked reader before naked text – annotation appears to be relevant and required. Instead the kind of reading in which the conditions of production, in the fullest sense, can be understood in relation to both writer and reader, writing and reading. A newly active social sense of writing and reading, through the social and material historical realities of language, in a world in which it is closely and precisely known, in every act of writing and reading, that these practices connect with, are inseparable from, the whole set of social practices and relationships which defines writers and readers as active human beings, as distinct from the idealised and projected ‘authors’ and ‘trained readers’ who are assumed to float, guarded and privileged, above the rough, divisive and diverse world of which, by some alchemy, they nevertheless hold the essential secret.
I can see, looking back, that challenging that notion of the essential secret, insisting that even the best orthodox professional routines were reducing or obscuring the many significances of this active language which was always so much more than a specialised Literature, was at best likely to be misunderstood, marked for early export to Sociology or History or even hotter regions; at worst seen as a threat, a barbarism – and indeed it was another language that was being spoken. What now most encourages me is that, in spite of the comminations, so much of this different kind of work began to get done, much of it, in fact, in Cambridge and by people moving out from Cambridge, and done in varied and contending ways.
What there was not, however, because in any fully worked-out sense there never had been, was a ‘Cambridge English’: a distinctive and coherent course and method of study. The Golden Age was golden only in its beginnings, its searchings, its open and free speaking and tolerant experimentation and inquiry. My own social and intellectual distance from it should not need emphasis. Many friends have told me that I have never distanced myself enough, but they are wrong. The distance is entire, the intellectual conflict absolute. My only community and inheritance in Cambridge is with some of the questions then posed and with the campaigning energy and seriousness that were brought to them. As these are now pushed away, disregarded even where they are nominally honoured, their largeness of spirit is worth recalling. And I recall, alongside this, the eminent interventions, from the English Association, from Oxford, to try to stop the brawling infant in its tracks. It would be doing no honour to those who attempted a serious ‘Cambridge English’ to have to settle to saying that these authorities need not have worried, that the infant would, after all, grow up to be remarkably like them.
It is often said that there are more than six centuries of English literature. It is not often said that there are less than two centuries of English literacy. Of course ‘English’, in those two statements, has different meanings. The first refers primarily to the language, the second to the people. But then it is the ordinarily unexamined relation between these meanings that can reveal a central problem in English studies. The idea of literature, throughout, has been so closely connected with the condition of literacy that it can hardly be said that this deeper relationship needs to be forced. Powerful social and cultural conventions control or displace what is otherwise an obvious connection. What then is ‘English literacy’, for professional students and teachers of English? Is it their own condition and that of people much like them? Or is it the diverse and changing conditions of the whole nominal people? To approach two centuries of English literacy means restricting our count to a bare majority. General literacy has a bare century, and within that many are still disadvantaged. In relation to what is seen as ‘our’ literature, where do students and teachers of English stand?
I have made my own awkward stand. By my educational history I belong with the literate and the literary. But by inheritance and still by affiliation I belong with an illiterate and relatively illiterate majority. It is said that as the whole society develops, and has for the past century been developing, these inherited problems and contradictions resolve themselves. I do not think so. Beyond our local and diverse histories there are major intellectual issues, of a fully objective kind, which need to be traced to this radical unevenness between literature and general literacy. Underlying them, always, are the complex general problems of language, and it is the treatment of these problems, in the coming years, that will, in my view, decide the success or failure of English studies.
The underlying problems stemmed, even and perhaps especially in Leavis, from the belief that all the necessary work – the collaborative analysis and understanding of a culture – could be done from a central base in literary criticism. Yet it has been clear from the Thirties, and obvious from the late Fifties, that many other kinds of knowledge and analysis have to be drawn on if the work is to be properly done, and that instead of relatively isolated forays from some presumed and then increasingly specialised centre there has to be a more open and equal-standing convergence of independent disciplines, seeking to make their evidence and their questions come together in a common inquiry. If this change of emphasis is not made – and to make it is to move decisively beyond the short and narrow terms of reference of the existing authorities – what seems in practice to happen, indeed to have been happening at an accelerating pace in the last twenty years, is that the problems and contradictions of the existing formulations are suppressed or at best fossilised, and what is offered instead, now with a whole specialised profession behind it, is not so much an exploratory as an instructing and examining course: necessarily, in view of its rich subject, with much of interest and value, but necessarily also, as can be seen at once when eyes lift, as they must, from the series of texts and essays, failing – deeply failing – to meet the full active interests of students, including those interests which stem from a love of writing and from a human concern with all its conditions and materials and possibilities.
It is from these active interests that a new convergence is being proposed. As early unformed or indeed uninformed questions they can be easily put down, by any academic authority, with the usual remarks about ignorance and the sneers against relevance. But that trick can only be turned in the authority’s own ignorance of the work of neighbouring disciplines, where the questions and the evidence that interlock with these questions and this evidence have been made precise and substantial and indeed convergent. This is why I continue to argue for a School of Humanities in Cambridge, corresponding to the Schools of Natural Sciences, to get beyond the fragmented and fragmenting concerns and conceits of isolated departments.
In English studies I would identify two tendencies and a possible third which seem to me to be convergent in this way. First, there is that close historical analysis of the language and conventions of plays and poems and novels and arguments which was once an integral part of what was called ‘practical criticism’. This was always relatively weak in its analysis of conventions. It was often overridden by the impulse and habit of supra-historical or ahistorical ‘evaluation’, in the interests of a universalist or subjectivist ‘criticism’, and in practice often declined to the limited but still useful exercise of ‘dating’. But it is still, at its best and potentially, a major and practical form of convergence. Second, there is still much to rely on in the intense practice of close reading and analysis, which has been limited more by its relative isolation from other kinds of inquiry than by anything in its own methods. Indeed the varieties of close reading which are now practised, including those which have reintroduced syntactic analysis, seem to me certain to be indispensable. Moreover, certain methods learned there have been extended and adapted to the now equally necessary analysis of speech and writing with images, in close work on film and television. Here there is a convergence not so much with another subject as with a major part of the practical culture of all contemporary students.
The possible third tendency is one with which, in the past, I have often identified, but have ended by redefining: that work which is usually described as on the ‘reading public’. As empirical work it is still important, but it is limited by its failure to notice or, worse, its rationalisation of the uneven fit between literature and literacy. There are several periods, including those most governed by print, in which attention to the ‘non-reading public’ is equally necessary. Some kinds of writing and some important forms need to be understood as much from the limiting relations which the unevenness imposed as from the confirming relations which an organised public supported. Moreover it is always at least as much a matter of ‘audiences’ as of ‘reading publics’. The complex interaction of oral and written and written-for-oral forms which runs through our cultural history – central before the 17th century, central again in the second half of the 20th century, significant in its very displacements and difficulties in the intervening centuries of the relative domination, within a limited literacy, of print – cannot be reduced to one privileged form. The conditions and relations of actual production as these are evident and discoverable in actual plays and poems and novels ought always to be a major element in English studies. But it is significant that the tolerance extended, if with an edge of disdain, to ‘reading-public’ studies is usually not extended to studies of the economics and politics of writing, to comparative analyses of printed and oral (often communal-oral) work, or to work on the material history of writing, printing, book production, theatres, cinemas, broadcasting, within which, and often in part changed by which, actual composition has been variably done.
The worst thing that now happens in English studies is that sustained work of this last kind is identified for early export to some other department: to history, to sociology, or to that most effective if least funded university department – the voluntary underground. For what has also to be said is that there will have to be equally significant changes in history and sociology and elsewhere if the best possibilities of this work are to be realised. It is true that sociological theory and method can at once improve, often beyond recognition, work on reading publics and cultural institutions. It is true that history offers fuller and more general evidence for what are often the extrapolated or privileged accounts of literary and especially critical history. But the very questions which some kinds of reading of plays and poems and novels suggest are questions which ought also to be central in history and sociology themselves, but which their most orthodox methods have failed to identify. The state of the language at a given time, for example, often indicated but not fully discoverable from its most enduring writing, is clearly a major historical issue. The extraordinary linguistic diversity of English Renaissance drama, so marked by comparison with what preceded and succeeded it, and so intricately connected with shifting social relations and with the interaction of high literacy and an exceptionally developed oral culture, can be discovered in full and complex detail in the plays, but has then to be related to a whole body of other available evidence, in education and in oral records and in more general social relations. We have already seen enough work to know that this is a fully practical convergence, but there are other areas to which there are still theoretical obstacles.
I have been working for some time on the problems of reported speech in novels, as this is related, in complex ways, both to literary conventions and to the diverse actual speech of periods and regions and classes, and to the typically controlling or enclosing language of narrative and analysis. I have found, in this work, some useful contacts with historians, and there is a particularly encouraging development, inside history, of studies of the oral tradition and oral evidence and of hitherto neglected forms such as the unpublished autobiographies of working men and women. But when it is argued, as it must be argued, that an understanding of these matters depends not only on the historical evidence of actual speech but on the quite evident literary conventions of its representation – the assimilation of speech, in polite novels, to the formal language of narrative or analysis; or the gross case of the conventional ‘orthography of the uneducated’ in which class and regional diversities are represented by errors in spelling, as if English had any such orthodox norm – there is usually a loss of contact, as if either the history or the literary conventions settled the matter, when the whole point is their interaction and even their evidence of failure to interact. Again, it is at the point of fine detail in the literary representation of social figures and social relations that the convergence with a more general sociology is necessary and desirable but is often theoretically blocked, as if a literary convention were not also a historical and sociological fact at the same time as, and just because, it is a working literary convention.
Yet it is in the newest area of the general convergence that the problems of significant identification are now most acute. Literary studies have to an extraordinary extent lost contact even with work in the empirical history of the language. But the problems of contact with what is newly generalised as linguistics are more subtle if not more pressing. There was a small rush, for local ideological reasons within literary criticism, to areas of theoretical linguistics which had much to contribute to humane studies but comparatively little to any practical convergence. On the other hand, the genuinely convergent developments – in discourse analysis, in sociolinguistics and even in some stylistics – were often based on very limited grounds. There was analysis of texts composed for analysis, when there was a whole world of real discourse, including literature. There was a limitation to unhistorical assumptions of norms and deviances. There were simplistic assumptions of detachable and identifiable ‘style’. I believe that within each of these areas, in increasingly interesting ways, developments are occurring which belong to the convergence and which are much more likely to belong to it if the questions and the evidence are moving in also from the other direction. For example, we have to run the abstraction of discourse through the specificities of highly variable oral and printed forms. In the concept of dialogue, say, we have an extraordinary range from philosophical dialogue to at least three major kinds of dramatic dialogue, in works which are among the highest peaks of European culture but which, for that very reason, require something more than appreciation or interpretation: they require analysis of their constitutive forms, which are at once in the broadest sense social and cultural and yet in the most precise sense capable of being analysed by new kinds of linguistic marker. In sociolinguistics, to set alongside the necessary field work, there is a vast range of oral and written composition over a historical period long enough to suggest questions and answers in some of the most profound social relationships, in the complex and dynamic interactions between what we call everyday language and the many and variable levels of formal composition. Others will have other examples, but what needs to be emphasised is that such work is already practical and is indeed in progress, and that as active work, in many societies, it is having to meet, in addition to its own formidable problems the relatively trivial but in practice equally formidable problems of its relations with existing and vested ‘subjects’ and institutions.
It happens that I am in touch with this work in many parts of the world, and especially in North America and the rest of Western Europe. It is genuinely difficult, with this work all the time on my desk, to look out of the window and suppose, as local pieties would have it, that Cambridge is still some kind of model. New work is happening mainly on the periphery of the old systems: in some of the new universities, in several polytechnics, in the Open University, and in many practical initiatives beyond the settled institutions. It is also happening, thankfully, in some Cambridge colleges. But that was how English studies, in their earliest phase, began. The oldest walls were the last to have gates. It is tempting to suppose that this history will repeat itself, or that in any case the remarkable international development of these new kinds of work – in several countries now well ahead of us – will eventually be heard about, by someone on a visit, who will come back with the good safe news.
But neither of these possibilities is the main point. When the perspective really alters, the work can be done anywhere, accepting and confronting its difficulties with the established authorities. This is clearer if we remember that at the most important level we are not talking only about courses and syllabuses. We are talking also, and primarily – as for a while Cambridge English did – about an intense crisis of culture and society: a crisis diversely defined and diversely met but in any case much more than an academic problem.
Be practical, we are told: think of the limits of what we can do. Yet in its own ways Cambridge English, especially through Richards and Leavis, recognised the central practicality which is so often now forgotten: that the object of the course is not to reproduce its instructors, by imparting the habits that made them instructors. Most of those who take it go on to very different work, in which new and much more severe tests of perception and value are the real practicalities. They should never have to contrast the soundest academic instruction with a world of more pressing real choices. In English studies, and in its convergences with other humanities and human sciences, there is so much active knowledge, so many active skills, which are both valuable in themselves and which really can connect with a world of practice and choice and struggle. It is to that vigorous connection – disturbing and yet profoundly encouraging, both inside institutions and beyond them – that I now pay my respects and look forward.