There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era beginning just before World War I and ending with the coming of World War II (the 1920s in particular representing the truest efflorescence of modernism). Anyone who has taken a college literature course knows that the English department (and literary study more broadly) organizes itself using these sorts of historical designations, but this way of understanding literary history has become so pervasive that probably few readers regard it as an especially “academic” assumption.
In Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Context and the Prestige of English Studies, Ted Underwood proposes that such a view of the literary past—through “periodization”—ultimately does not in fact derive from academic literary study but from a more general perspective on history introduced by a popular source, the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott “was celebrated specifically for his power to recreate particularized historical moments in intimate social detail,” writes Underwood, “and the English professors who introduced period survey courses to universities in the 1840s modeled their new courses implicitly on Scott’s accomplishment.” Scott’s ability to “recreate particularized historical moments” somewhat paradoxically depends on the reader’s awareness of an essential discontinuity in history, a recognition that the past is fundamentally different, irretrievable by study or representation except through contrast with the present. “Historical contrast” thus came to seem the logical way to organize a curriculum in English literature, since works of the literary past (at the time the only works that might conceivably be taught) are presumably marked as well by historical variance.
Underwood’s book is valuable not least for the account it gives of the establishment of English literature as a university subject (at University College—then the University of London—and King’s College) in the 1840s, prior to the efforts to introduce English as a field of study chronicled by Gerald Graff in Professing Literature, otherwise the definitive history of the rise of “English studies,” particularly in the United States. Graff frames the debate about whether the study of vernacular literature should have a place in the university as between “philology” and “criticism,” with the advocates of the latter arguing that studying literature for its own sake is justified because it helps to cultivate critical reading skills, against the linguistic/historical approach of the former, whereby literature serves as a source for the study of the development of language per se. Underwood’s analysis shows that underlying the triumph of criticism was the organizing principle of historical periodization, which survived all of the changes of critical approach that have characterized modern literary study, from the initial dominance of New Criticism to its later supplanting by critical theory and cultural studies.
This certainly suggests that periodization has been useful to the academy, so much so that Underwood believes most academic scholars and critics simply take it for granted, and in fact often resist the idea that some other organizing strategy might better suit literary study. By the end of the book Underwood more or less concludes that it is indeed time for English departments to reconsider periodization as the curricular norm, but the primary burden of Why Literary Periods Mattered is to illuminate why literary periods did indeed matter, and why the period course continued to endure even though there were challenges to its dominion and the orientation of literary study toward its subject, literature, has changed rather profoundly.
The most logical alternative to organization by period would be an organization emphasizing continuity through genre, through “types” of literary practice, or through “issues” that arise across generic boundaries or even across nationalities. This sort of alternative was offered by “comparative literature” in its earliest manifestation. The comparatists, according to Underwood, “sought to explain continuous processes of development” and thus “challenged the whole underlying notion that literary study ought to be organized around discrete movements at all.” But comparative literature pretty quickly evolved into the discipline as we know it today, in American universities emphasizing literature in translation (at its most anodyne a vague sort of “world literature”). Soon enough comp lit courses were also being offered through periodization: “The literary curriculum was already organized around nations and periods. To gain entry to the curriculum, comparative literature generally had to borrow faculty from departments of national literature and adapt itself to a periodized structure.” Eventually, comparative literature became just as preoccupied with critical theory as English studies, managing to make it compatible with a period structure in both scholarship and course offerings. Underwood argues, in fact, that the view of history represented by a theorist such as Foucault actually accommodates itself quite nicely to periodization.
The real blow against comparative literature’s incipient challenge to historical periodization in the literature curriculum was struck by Rene Wellek, a supporter of New Criticism and himself a comparatist. Wellek believed that a literature curriculum needed to combine “critical evaluation” with literary history, and that periodization was the only way to do that. For Wellek, the challenge was to preserve a place for literary study that was distinctively literary, that did not simply loan out literature to approaches more interested in history or the study of culture more broadly. Underwood quotes Wellek’s expression of concern that
The study of everything connected with the history of civilization will crowd out strictly literary studies. All distinctions will fall and extraneous criteria will be introduced into literature, and literature will necessarily be judged valuable only insofar as it yields results for this or that neighboring discipline.
Wellek is essentially arguing that literary study, whose status within the modern research university was already precarious, could maintain itself as an academic discipline only if it remained self-evidently about literature. Once the study of literature had been admitted to the university curriculum, its integrity, Wellek believed, depended on avoiding “extraneous” issues that pointed away from “literature itself” to subjects properly belonging to other disciplines.
This is not an idle concern if you do believe that “literature” is a definable subject that includes an identifiable history of practice and a supply of important works, as well as provides a continuity of such practice so that it becomes more than just a collection of old texts but instead a “living tradition” to which students can be exposed (and perhaps some of them will eventually contribute). Whether the triumph of the comparative lit model would have had the effective of hollowing out literary study in the way Wellek describes is certainly open to question. That Wellek’s position prevailed as readily as it did suggests that scholars weren’t so eager to collapse the distinctions he wanted to reinforce, but even so the impression that losing sight of the autonomy of literature as an aesthetic form or special kind of moral reflection might eventually lead to the dissolution of “strictly” literary study into a hodgepodge of disparate approaches, often indeed moving into “neighboring disciplines,” was not ill-founded. Arguably this is exactly what has happened to academic literary study, even while periodization has otherwise continued to structure the curriculum. Wellek thus ultimately was wrong about the necessity of periodization for the preservation of “strictly literary studies”: organization by periods has made for a certain stability in course offerings and academic publishing, but it has by no means ensured that a focus on the kind of critical evaluation Wellek had in mind would continue to predominate.
We might even speculate that the “intrinsic” study of literature Wellek championed in his most famous book, Theory of Literature (written with Austin Warren) may have in fact been better served by a curriculum organized by literary forms or genres, with or without distinctions of nationality. To emphasize “historical contrast” is still to consider literature historically, and a field of study in which history weighs so heavily is going to foreground historical forces themselves to a degree that begins to make literary scholarship into a species of historical inquiry as much as, in some cases more than, it is a form of literary criticism. Likewise, the additional separations of nationality lead to analyses focused on social and cultural traits and tendencies that works of literature conveniently make visible. The beginnings of “American Literature” may have involved efforts to celebrate the Americanness of American literature, while later on the goal was more often to question and critique the cultural assumptions to be found in American writing, but ultimately both approaches are equally willing to reduce literature to its instrumental value in examining national character or disclosing cultural attitudes.
Wellek and the New Critics wanted to value literature for itself, and their preferred method of doing so, what came to be called “close reading,” practiced within the framework of periodization, appeared to give literary study its disciplinary identity. The scholar became the academic critic (although more traditionally “scholarly” activities continued to be carried out, in a kind of modus vivendi with New Criticism), with “critical evaluation” taking on a more elevated status in relation to the book reviewer or literary journalist. Yet even close reading could not finally be safely claimed as the defining method of “strictly literary studies,” as the proponents of critical theory, while otherwise rejecting New Critical notions of the literary text as “verbal icon” to be held up for appreciation, nonetheless retained close reading as their own strategy for drawing out political, historical, and cultural implications of literary texts (which were to be “interrogated” more than read). Because periodization still allowed academic criticism in this new mode to operate perfectly well—in some ways even encouraged it, since these implications work themselves out differently in different historical conditions—the period-centered curriculum largely escaped scrutiny.
Underwood believes that the increasing prominence of “digital humanities” signals the end of periodization, and he argues that the quantitative methods of digital data-gathering can provide literary study a new mission in which the goal becomes to “map broad patterns and trace gradients of change.” The most well-known proponent of the quantitative approach is probably Franco Moretti and his notion of “distant reading,” its very name suggesting that academic literary criticism has now fully severed itself from the kind of criticism Rene Wellek once advocated. Underwood acknowledges that the quantitative mode also probably means that the autonomy of literary study Wellek wanted to safeguard is no longer desirable or expedient, predicting that with the adoption of quantitative analysis “it becomes increasingly difficult to draw disciplinary boundaries.” For those of us who continue to believe the study of literature carries its own kind of value that has not been exhausted, perhaps the only possible silver lining in this rather cloudy prospect is that the final erasure of the disciplinary boundary that once gave definition to “literary study” will be complete enough that someone will again have the idea that literature might be an interesting addition to the college curriculum.