When I tell people I’m writing a history of English studies as an academic discipline in Britain, I encounter the kind of baffled, pitying look likely to be provoked by saying I’ve spent the last ten years building a scale model of Westminster Abbey out of matchsticks. The idea of such a history seems to strike many people as at once unrealistically ambitious and largely pointless. When I explain that I am focusing, not on the history of literary criticism, but on the institutional history, looking at the role of universities, departments, appointments, syllabuses and so on, the bafflement turns to boredom and the silent reflection that it takes all sorts.
Yet there is surely something worth understanding about this history. As universities began to assume their modern shape and importance in the 19th century, the reading of easily accessible literature in the vernacular hardly seemed to meet the criteria for becoming an academic subject. The prevailing model of scholarly seriousness emphasised intellectual rigour, empirical information and impersonal presentation. The study of English literature seemed, by contrast, too insubstantial, too subjective and, well, just too easy. Classics provided the benchmark, one that it was felt English could not match. As was said of debates over the proposal to introduce some study of English literature at Oxford in the 1880s, ‘It would obviously ease matters if English could be made to look like a dead language.’
English nonetheless went on to become not just an established part of the curriculum in all British universities, but, by the middle decades of the 20th century, often the most popular subject of all in terms of student numbers, certainly the most popular arts subject. Moreover, for a period from roughly the late 1940s to the early 1970s the study and criticism of English literature was one of the central, even one of the defining, intellectual activities of British culture, attracting forms of existential commitment and impassioned debate that reached far beyond the storm-tossed teacups of academia. And this is without touching on the vigorous life of the subject elsewhere in the English-speaking world (and eventually beyond), above all the partly overlapping, partly distinctive form such study assumed in US universities and colleges. All this suggests that, as the ineffable Mr Brooke observes in Middlemarch, this ‘line of work is very deep indeed’.
Few are better suited to this work than John Guillory, the deep man’s deep man. His Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, published in 1993, is one of the most admired and influential studies in the humanities in recent decades. The hallmark of his work has been to engage with, but stand back from, the issues roiling contemporary academic debates, setting them in a longer historical perspective and bringing a form of distanced, sociologically informed theory to their analysis, emphasising the broader field of cultural production. In Professing Criticism this approach issues in the most penetrating, and in some ways most original, study we have of the forces that have shaped the history of literary study, especially in the US.
Guillory aspires to understand the sources of the unsteadiness and division that have marked the attempt to ‘profess criticism’ – that is, to make literary criticism the business of a profession. The founding (and characteristic) move of his book is to set the development of academic literary studies in the framework of the sociology of the professions. He defines the latter as ‘a mode of association, a social arrangement by which those who possess specialised forms of knowledge associate with one another and organise their actions’. In this wide sense, the growth of professions remade American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the university became the main credentialling institution, and those who taught in universities had to conform to the professional model, basing their authority on command of specialised forms of knowledge.
These developed into academic disciplines, ‘mode[s] of organising intellectual enquiry according to object and method’. The question was whether literary studies possessed – or perhaps, on the most sceptical view, could possess – such a mode. As a result, the growth of English studies ‘inverted the usual sequence’ between the development of a discipline and the development of professionalisation: ‘Literary study became a profession before it became a discipline.’ Guillory has some acute things to say about three of the major contenders in the 19th century to supply the needed disciplinary qualities: rhetoric, philology and belles-lettres. They had contrasting strengths and weaknesses. In brief, rhetoric met the educational need but not the research need, while philology did the reverse: it was the model of exact and recondite scholarship, but made a poor basis for a general pedagogy. Belles-lettres, seemingly too tied to the cultivation of taste in select circles, met neither need very well.
For Guillory, the pivotal development in the whole story was the arrival of ‘criticism’ as the dominant approach in the 1920s and 1930s, whether in the form of I.A. Richards’s ‘practical criticism’ in the UK or the New Critics’ ‘close reading’ in the US. This is when, in his view, literary studies became a discipline. But the attempt to turn criticism into a regulated and self-replicating profession generated all kinds of tensions, and Guillory urges that many of the issues agitating the field in recent decades are best seen as a working out of these tensions. For example, ‘criticism’ never quite shook off the aspiration to be in some way the criticism of society, not just literature, saddling the activity with exaggerated ambitions still evident today. At the same time, the logic of professionalism required a form of specialisation, a process carried further in the pressures towards intradisciplinary specialisation, which for the past 150 years has tended to take the form of expertise in the literature of a particular period. Even where the most ambitious conception of the discipline retains some overarching claim to underwrite the criticism of society, the cross-grained pressures of professionalisation demand ever greater subdivision: not to specialise is to risk one’s professional status by reverting to being an ‘amateur’. (It is interesting to reflect on the disciplinary status of a book such as Professing Criticism itself, which is bracingly professional – it is not addressed to any imagined ‘general reader’ – and yet the opposite of specialised, even if polemical reflection on the nature of the discipline and its history has become something of a sub-genre in its own right.)
Another key theme is the process of ‘vernacularisation’: what happened when the centuries-long dominance of Latin and Greek came to an end? Various disciplines established themselves as breakaways from, or partial replacements for, the old rhetoric-based pedagogy, as the ancient languages began to lose their monopoly as markers of social superiority. Scholarship was increasingly conducted in the vernacular and a canon of literary works written in English established itself. This is one of the places where more might need to be said about the differences between the situations in the US and the UK. In the former, as Guillory convincingly shows, the classics-dominated curriculum of the pre-Civil War colleges disappeared with rapidity in the 1870s and 1880s, even if Latin retained some vestigial ceremonial status. But in Britain, the classics were entrenched for much longer in elite education: in 1914 there were more classics masters in the nine leading public schools than teachers of all other subjects combined, while Oxford and Cambridge only abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement in 1960. Snobbery obviously played a part in all this, but so did the conviction that Latin, in particular, provided an unmatchable form of mental training, a kind of maths without numbers. In its early years, English struggled to compete, either in terms of cultural standing or of alleged rigour.
This history touches on a minor puzzle that has long intrigued me, namely, why in the US the teaching of writing – ‘freshman composition’ – became the responsibility of English departments, and one of the main justifications for their importance within the university, whereas in the UK it didn’t. Part of the answer lies in the broad general education of the US undergraduate within the elective system, so that ‘composition’ becomes an offering that students who will go on to major in diverse subjects can take (and in many places must take), whereas the staff of English departments in the UK have historically been confined to teaching students who, under the single-subject system, apply to do English. But historically I suspect it had more to do with the earlier democratisation of higher education in the US combined with the acknowledged failings of high-school teaching. In the UK the assumption, justified or not, was that those arriving as undergraduates would already have been well taught in the selective schools from which they were largely drawn. Also, in the US there was an inheritance of expectations from the tradition of teaching rhetoric and oratory in the antebellum college. Oratory may have seemed relevant to the later careers of the small social elite who attended the old colleges, but writing was the more necessary skill for the vastly expanded number being disgorged from universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The history Guillory sketches – and, for all its fecundity, it is a sketch, remaining at quite a high level of generalisation – throws several currently contentious issues into sharper relief. Noting the anxiety and defensiveness that criticism’s never wholly successful claim to professional status has generated, he links this to the grossly exaggerated justifications that tend to be offered for academic literary studies. He notes that the tendency to overstate the significance of the discipline has in our time taken the form of exaggerating the political effects of teaching English literature. As academic scholars in the humanities feel increasingly vulnerable in societies governed by the imperatives of global capital, so they seek to ratchet up their ‘relevance’. The main form such claims currently take, particularly among professors of English in the US, is to argue that their pedagogic and scholarly work is, at bottom, a kind of radical political activism. This does not mean teaching Marlowe and Austen in the day job and then also having a role in radical politics: it means treating one’s teaching and writing about Marlowe and Austen as a form of radical politics in itself. Guillory is severe on this particular form of professional self-delusion.
These various forms of exaggeration are, fundamentally, expressions of a lack of confidence rather than its opposite. Guillory wants quietly to remind English scholars – his characteristic tone is quiet, even though the effect of his writing is both conclusive and devastating – of the value of their basic activity: that of extending knowledge and understanding of English literature. ‘The study of literature is a rational procedure for what can be known about an object’ (the literary work). This is a cognitive enterprise, and it centres on the study of writing that is ‘sufficiently wrought’ for the writing itself to be of interest. Put in that simple way, this may seem to beg all the important questions, yet it also points to an intellectual achievement that should not be disregarded. This doesn’t settle anything, for, as we know, justification is a never-ending game – ‘Yes, but why is that important?’ – but exaggerating the political consequences of what we do does not terminate that endless chain of questions and answers any better than any other claim.
One of the main determinants of the vulnerability of literary studies, and hence of the compensating over-ambitiousness of the justification offered for it, is the mismatch between literature’s suitability as a subject for teaching and as a subject for research. It is not hard to provide a persuasive account of the value of the pedagogy, something indirectly attested to by the subject’s popularity with students (until recently, anyway). But it is much harder to say what ‘research’ in English should look like and why it is necessary (a similar tension dogs philosophy). There may be thousands of teachers of English literature who can successfully help students navigate their encounter with, say, King Lear, but hardly any of those teachers will be able to produce an extended critical analysis of the play that could come close to matching some of the magnificent readings offered by a handful of major critics in the past. Nonetheless, the current form of professionalism requires publication as an indicator of academic worth, and so teachers of English are driven down lesser paths: they provide ever more detailed contextual material relating to major works, or they undertake elaborate scholarly studies of minor works, or they write introductory guides for students. None of these is an ignoble activity, but the result can be a mismatch between the high-toned justifications, which almost invariably focus on the supposedly transformative effect of encountering major works of literature, and the actual daily practice of academics, which revolves around more limited enterprises, the majority of them like the empirical work done in adjacent disciplines such as history.
Guillory identifies further tendencies in the current malaise afflicting literary studies, tendencies that grow out of the unstable settlement universities first negotiated with works of the imagination. Early courses in English could assume agreement about a relatively fixed canon of major authors, mostly poets, and the pedagogic task was to deepen acquaintance with these masterpieces. But social change undermined these confident assumptions. Instead, ‘students who enter into literary study today are the products of a system in which the representational function of literature and the criticism of society are axiomatic.’ As Guillory implies, both of these ‘axioms’ are highly debatable, to say the least, but their combined effect is to concentrate attention on recent and contemporary prose fiction, most frequently understood as the expression of one or another kind of gender or ethnic ‘identity’. Pressure of a similar kind has been exerted by the demand that the works set for study should be ‘relatable’. Teachers want to engage the interests of students, while, for larger political reasons, people want to encounter individuals who are in some major dimension ‘like’ themselves – whether as political representatives, or teachers, or, more ambiguously, as authors. Yet one of the most important functions of an education in a humanities subject is to introduce students to worlds that are different from the one they think they know, and chronological and cultural distance are among the most important forms of such difference. In some cases this argument may involve retaining traditional and now unfashionable texts; in others it may justify ‘rebalancing’ a selection by including historically neglected authors or genres. Either way, the search for ‘identification’ – with a character, a story or a writer – may be an incitement to youthful reading, but a too-easy endorsement of this quest soon impoverishes a syllabus.
What Guillory understands, as many who engage in the frothier debates on these topics do not, is that the fate of ‘English’ as a discipline is not principally determined by the curriculum or the methods by which material is to be studied. There have been much larger social pressures at work, both in making familiarity with the masterpieces of English literature seem like a desirable form of cultural capital in the first place, and in driving many university applicants from the most recent cohorts to choose other subjects instead. The changes in the structure of the economy (and in accompanying social expectations) that have become especially visible since the financial crisis of 2008 have done more than any decision about the syllabus to determine enrolments. Right-wing culture-warriors love to claim that it’s no wonder students are deserting the subject when academics are replacing the English classics with third-rate expressions of identity politics, but the truth is that the damage is due to the socio-economic policies those same political figures have promoted, which have increased precarity, proletarianised so many sub-managerial roles, instrumentalised education, devalued cultural achievement, and concentrated wealth in the hands of financial and corporate elites.
Guillory is surely right to note that literature itself enjoys a less central place in our culture now than it did in the 19th century. Other media, other cultural forms, have become increasingly important since the mid-20th century, and English as an academic subject can no longer ride on the back of the unchallenged cultural pre-eminence of literature. The task now is to make the case for studying literature in terms that recognise this shift without lapsing into nostalgia. Equally, Guillory is not advocating some quixotic enterprise of trying to disavow the rigours of scholarship in order to return to some imagined form of ‘lay reading’ or what he calls, after Deidre Lynch, ‘amateur envy’. He has an astringent chapter on the current forms taken by this temptation, which, as he shows, has a long history. The same strategy enables him to address from a fresh angle other well-worn topics, such as the need for the teaching of writing in ways not usually addressed in ‘freshman composition’, or ways of enabling graduate students to appreciate that their studies have not been wasted if they do not pursue an academic career.
So much of what Guillory has to say about contemporary issues, whether on ‘The Contradictions of Global English’ or ‘Evaluating Scholarship in the Humanities’ (to take two of his chapter titles), seems to me so important that I hesitate to risk muting the impact of his message by pausing over aspects of his historical story. But there are at least three points at which I would question, or at least supplement, his account.
The first concerns his claim about when the teaching and study of English literature may be said to have become a discipline. The central assertion on which Guillory’s historical account turns is that this happened thanks to the impact of I.A. Richards’s work on ‘practical criticism’ in the 1920s. This, it has to be acknowledged, is a view shared by other commentators on the topic, but, as commonly stated, it risks exaggerating a partial truth. Confining the discussion to the UK for the moment, we can as accurately or inaccurately speak of a ‘discipline’ of literary studies in the years between 1880 and 1920 as we can in the years from 1920 to 1960. It’s true that from the 1940s onwards, something called ‘literary criticism’ was increasingly promoted as the dominant approach of the discipline, but even then other approaches, such as literary history or textual editing, by no means died out.
But whatever form the claim to disciplinary identity took, it did not depend on there being unanimity about method – that has been rare in any humanities discipline – but on there being an agreed object of study, and certainly in Britain this was in place right across the decades from 1880 to 1960, as well as, in messier or more contested form, before and after. That object was English literature. There were questions about where the boundaries of this subject ended and that of others began, but, again, that has been true of a great many disciplines – no one could imagine that history had clearly delimited subject-matter, and it has proved notoriously difficult to say what the object of study of philosophy is, or even whether that is the right question to ask in its case. But there was enough agreement that ‘English literature’ was a recognised body of writing, most conveniently thought of as running from Beowulf and Chaucer to the present (or, at Oxford, till the day before yesterday), constituted by poetry above all, but including drama, essays, novels and sometimes related forms of writing. The fact of there being disputes at the margins of this recognised object did not mean that this material could be thought of as the principal subject-matter of another discipline: it clearly ‘belonged’ to literary studies.
In making his historical case, Guillory obviously has the rise to professional power of the New Critics in mind, but even in this context Richards’s role should not be exaggerated: insofar as the New Critics were adapting the ideas and practice of immediate predecessors across the Atlantic, Eliot and Empson mattered at least as much – Richards, after all, published very little actual criticism in the 1920s and 1930s. In the UK, Leavis and the Scrutiny group played a larger part in the story, but they had less impact in the US. I suspect Richards gets singled out retrospectively because he appeared to give a theoretical justification for changes in practice that actually had more varied sources, as well as because of the perennial tendency to overstate the importance of theorists. In any case, whatever story we choose to tell of the tangled relations among various modes of literary study in the interwar period, and especially after 1940, I’m not persuaded that it constitutes a sufficiently sharp or complete transformation to merit being treated as the point of emergence of a ‘discipline’.
I wonder, too, whether Guillory is right to say that, in the process of establishing criticism as a discipline, academic literary critics ‘abandoned’ the task of evaluative judgment. It’s obviously true that the New Criticism, especially once it became a pedagogic industry, involved an emphasis on ‘interpretation’ rather than ‘evaluation’, but, first, such interpretation was applied to works already singled out for their aesthetic value, and, second, not all literary scholars were New Critics or had their professional practice determined by them. In Britain during the same period it would seem bizarre to suggest that critics abandoned evaluative judgment: notoriously, those influenced by Leavis and Scrutiny were far more often accused of pursuing such judgment to the exclusion of all else.
Asecond, related, ground on which Guillory’s historical account might be supplemented is that it appears to underestimate the foundational role of literary history, which had some claim to be the most enduring form of literary study from the mid-19th century onwards. Even though most contemporary academics might disdain the label, their practice is often some variant on this capacious activity even now. One important indication of continuity was the way both appointments and curricular units continued to be defined in terms of periods, something that remained the case through swings in methodological fashion. Much pedagogic practice in the mid-20th century may have consisted in the more or less ‘close reading’ of texts arranged in chronological order, but even this was intellectually parasitic on the prior labours of literary historians.
Guillory argues that identifying their subject-matter as ‘verbal works of art’ enabled the New Critics to distinguish ‘the object of literary criticism from that of literary history’. But, again, I wonder about this, given that the subject of old-style literary history was a canon of works whose aesthetic status was taken for granted (as in examination questions that asked candidates to identify the ‘greatest’ poems of a period or the particular ‘beauties’ of a given work, as though these were pieces of information to be learned, peculiar forms of fact). Anyway, why should criticism require that ‘literature’ be narrowed to ‘imaginative literature’? Its techniques can be applied equally well to non-fiction prose.
It wasn’t the emphasis on a verbal work of art that was new, though there was certainly much more attention to verbal detail; it was rather that the way the detail achieved its overall effect was no longer assumed to be apparent to readers, requiring instead a special form of analysis for its illumination. In reality, many of the first generations of readers of, say, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in the mid-Victorian era may not have been any more skilled at reading earlier literature than their 20th-century successors, but the governing fiction in the second half of the 19th century was that such great literature constituted a common possession. It was large-scale social and educational changes and the multiplication of alternative media that undermined such an assumption, not the heightened emphasis on the structure of the verbal artefact, which was more a consequence than a cause of the change.
The third place where Guillory’s account might be modified or extended concerns the study of ‘language’ in literary studies. He contends that a sure indication of the ‘pre-disciplinary’ status of the activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was that it embraced two distinct subjects under one roof – language and literature. But in practice was this really fatal for its disciplinary status? In the UK, in particular, most chairs and (once something akin to departments had evolved) most departments bore the composite title ‘English Language and Literature’. It’s quite true that there were scholars who specialised in, and courses that focused on, one or the other part of this familiar dyad, and their approaches and materials could at times be far apart. But three things need to be said about this.
First, a lot of what was classed as ‘language’ was in fact the study of older literature, including in many places medieval literature, and there was no difficulty in thinking of the earlier material, ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’, as belonging to the larger story. Learning to read Beowulf was regarded as only more difficult in degree, not in kind, from learning to read the Canterbury Tales. Second, this remained true after the supposed Ricardian revolution; language continued to be part of English syllabuses during the decades when criticism was most fashionable, but without weakening the larger claim to disciplinary identity. And third, something similar might be said about other disciplines that involved some version of the same pairing – modern languages most obviously, but also, in practice, classics, and in neither case has that been regarded as an objection to their possessing disciplinary status. The pairing of ‘language’ and ‘literature’ in English courses may be seen as a legacy of that period in the mid and late 19th century when a combination of philology and nationalism underwrote the syllabus, but it proved capable of adapting to more than one supposed revolution in critical method.
Cutting across (and even partly accounting for) these areas of possible disagreement is the question of the similarities and contrasts between the US and the UK, two countries divided by a common study of literature. Guillory attempts to embrace them both, especially in his treatment of the earlier history of the discipline, but, as will already be apparent, his implicit frame of reference is the American story, and that becomes explicit when he is discussing the trends that have dominated professional debate in recent decades. There are no easy answers here: the history of the study and criticism of literature in the two countries is in some ways part of a single story, in some ways not, but the more one emphasises the larger socio-cultural determinants of the forms and practices of academic scholarship, the greater difficulty one has with the idea of a single ‘Anglo-American’ story. The growth of universities in the two countries followed different patterns after 1870, responding, in part, to different social needs, with the question of cultural integration of new generations of students from diverse backgrounds particularly exercising American minds. It is also the case that the kind of professionalisation that Guillory is discussing was both earlier and more thorough in the US, whereas in the UK the overlap between academic and lay literary culture was more ragged and more long-lived. And of course the question of the relation to a national literature was different in the two countries, with American literature being slow to enter the curriculum in its native country and challenge the accepted supremacy of writing from a small archipelago more than three thousand miles away.
The intimacy of the relation between English studies in the two countries has waxed and waned over time: American scholars were regarded with some condescension by many in the UK in the late 19th century, but they might be said to have been the dominant partners between the 1940s and 1970s, perhaps the period that came closest to possessing a single transatlantic academic literary-critical culture. Since then, study and teaching in US universities have largely shed their residual Anglophilia; they have increasingly focused on issues internal to American society and forms of writing assumed to address those issues, with the result that a bigger gap has opened up once again. Guillory understands all this, of course, but the attempt to embrace both histories in a single account is bound to produce its own strains.
It isn’t easy to characterise the intellectual mode that is on such impressive display in Professing Criticism. It is clearly not a history of literary criticism – indeed, there is rather little about individual critics in it. In fact, it is not in the most familiar sense a ‘history’ of anything – there are not a lot of quotations from original sources, or accounts of individual works, or even specific dateable events. But it is far more learned about the past than most works of sociology (as well as far better written). It is a kind of high-level historico-cultural analysis that focuses above all on professional and disciplinary forms of organisation, yet written by someone who can read the ancient rhetoricians in Latin while also being familiar with whatever fashionable winds are bestirring among members of the Modern Language Association.
The equipment Guillory brings to his task is formidable. At times, his structural or aerial view can seem reminiscent of the followers of Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Foucault; at other moments, his centuries-wide learning evokes the tradition of Erich Auerbach or Ernst Robert Curtius; and at still other times he takes his place alongside major contemporary scholars of American education and society such as Laurence Veysey, David Hollinger and Gerald Graff. Guillory opens with a respectful nod to Graff’s Professing Literature, published in 1987, which gave a more internal and chronological narrative of the developments that Guillory subjects to estranging structural analysis. But in the end, Professing Criticism does not fit any familiar category: it is the work of an original intelligence taking seriously the various responsibilities involved in trying to understand how the present state of literary study emerged out of its history.
Guillory concludes with an attempt to identify and bring out the rationales that underlie the institution of literary study whether we realise it or not – for, as he puts it, ‘We have been living in this institution so long that we no longer see it.’ Having distinguished linguistic, moral, national, aesthetic and epistemic rationales, he ends with a declaration of faith: literary scholars are specialists in the understanding of those forms of writing that most interest us as writing; the body of cumulative literary scholarship is the elaborated form of that understanding.
To whatever extent we transmit scholarship to those we teach, we can reasonably claim to have enhanced their ability to understand literary works, to take pleasure in these works, and to comprehend how complex a literary artefact can be, how interconnected with its social environment, how much meaning can be condensed in how few words. And we can, moreover, hope to enable readers of literature to articulate understanding for themselves. I do not know how we might measure the effect of such cultural transmission; I only suggest that our society would be the poorer without it, however limited its dissemination.
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