SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 827-879
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Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century
James Eli Adams
I, too, dislike it--this impossible task of trying to distill a year's worth of publications, thousands of years' worth of intellectual labor, and having to leave the bulk of it unrecognized. At the same time, there is something irresistible in the dream of sizing up a discipline, of trying to capture the way we read now. Hence I have indulged the fiction that the books offered for review are indeed a representative sampling of recent work on nineteenth-century English literature, and so offer an occasion for some guarded generalizations about our enterprise as a whole.
In the age of the interdisciplinary, or (to skeptics) of English as the imperial discipline, which aspires to be master--or at least interrogator--of all it surveys, principles of exclusion are hard to come by. Why a book on the Crystal Palace but not one on railways? While trying to cast as wide a thematic net as possible, I have as a rule given most space to those studies that most provoked me--whether to admiration or resistance, or both--as examples of method. A hobby horse, perhaps, but one bolstered by my early reading of the general studies in romanticism, where (naif that I am) I was surprised by the regularity and fierceness with which critics declared their allegiances for or against the rebel angel Jerome McGann. Though the rival parties in this arena fight principally under the opposing banners of (broadly speaking) deconstruction and new historicism, at times even these encounters appear as flank attacks in the broader struggle over the "politicizing" of literary study. I do not propose to enter those lists, only to suggest in passing that, on the evidence of recent [End Page 827] work, the battle has given off light as well as heat, stimulating productive questions about literary-historical understanding. Michel Foucault's protean example remains the single most prominent point of reference in these studies, whether as model or symptom, and many of their central concerns can be posed in the broad terms of his writings, as fundamental questions about human identity and agency in relation to various frames of authority and power.
So far as is possible, I have tried to make this review an essay, not just a sequence of brief notices. To that end, I have organized it thematically rather than generically, guided by my overriding preoccupation with method. This has inevitably squeezed aside many studies deserving of notice; in particular, it entailed passing over nearly all the valuable editions of primary texts and letters, which are of course an essential part of our enterprise but rarely foreground method as a problem. On the other hand, I have offered relatively lengthy quotation from the works I found most provocative, in an effort to capture the texture of the author's thought, and as a small rebuke to our current tendency to reduce literary study to "concepts" or "views" rather than arguments. I hope I have reined in the temptation (and at the end of such a project it is admittedly strong) to score easy points against the far-too-many studies not worth the time devoted to them. When I do single out works for sharp disagreement, it is because I think them worth arguing with. I hope readers will feel the same about this review.
Going by sheer power to shape the study of English literature, the single most important volume this year is the third edition of volume four (1800-1900) of the indispensable Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, edited by Joanne Shattock. The new edition reflects thirty years of changes in the field; it is nearly fifty percent longer, has dramatically expanded a number of sections, has introduced several new sections (political economy, "household books"), and has dropped distinctions between major and minor writers. The hierarchy measured by sheer space is still predictable: on a quick survey, Charles Dickens has the longest entry (at...