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  • The Newest Eighteenth Century
  • Claudia Thomas Kairoff
John Richetti ed. The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2005). Pp. 945. $160. 9 ills. ISBN 0-521-7814-2

The publication of The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780 offers a fine opportunity not only to assess this particular volume, but to take the pulse of eighteenth-century studies. As editor John Richetti remarks, the previous Cambridge History of this period was published in 1916. A fifteen-volume set designed to tell "the full story of English literature," the original Cambridge History was a reference text not unlike an encyclopedia or the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Magisterial in tone, the four volumes covering the long eighteenth century dispensed confident judgments so that students of the period would know exactly what to think of its various writers. Alexander Pope, for example, is of enduring importance due to his technical mastery, wit, and as a reflection of his times, but he is not among the greatest poets. Jonathan Swift, likewise, endures because of his near-perfect style and masterful irony, but a satirist cannot be ranked as highly as a creative writer. Anne Finch is dismissed as an imitator of Matthew Prior; Myra Reynolds's 1903 edition of her verse was not much to Finch's credit. And so forth. The earlier Cambridge History established the Restoration and eighteenth century as critical to the development of literature in English (transatlantic and other colonial writings were considered), [End Page 92] but, from John Dryden until the Romantic period, lacking originality and hence creative genius. How over a century of writing, meriting hundreds of pages of descriptive analysis, deserved this rather pejorative treatment is a question Clifford Siskin takes up, indirectly, in the final chapter of this fresh edition. But Richetti establishes from the outset that his volume's purpose will be to provide not only a standard introduction to the literary period, but also a review of current debates and controversies in the field. Far from the magisterial pretension of its predecessor, this new volume emphasizes the massive changes in literary studies and the wealth of perspectives that have enriched our understanding of literature since the last edition.

As was the case in the eighteenth century itself, the passage of eighty-nine years seems to have been required before a decisive break with tradition was accomplished. Why eighty-nine years? Why not await the one-hundredth anniversary of the last edition? Or, better yet, why have not updated literary histories been issued every twenty-five years or so? This question is not frivolous; it invites reflecting about why the early twenty-first century seemed the apt moment to produce a fresh version of English literary history, the third of a projected five-volume series that will replace the early twentieth-century narrative. Perhaps the discipline simply appeared too volatile for editors to invest in a major new edition before the turn of the century. A cursory examination of this volume reveals the absence of direct references to many critical approaches that would have been far more prominent had these chapters been written twenty years before, such as deconstructionism, Marxism, and reader-response theory: these and other theories inform the thirty chapters without calling attention to themselves. To paraphrase Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, they have gone through and through literary studies, like wine through water, and altered the color of scholarship. While marvelously free of most jargon and catchphrases (it is not until the final chapter that we encounter the "always already" formula, for example), these chapters demonstrate the mostly salutary effects of such movements as feminism, new historicism, postcolonialism, and cultural studies, in addition to those cited above. Although it would be inaccurate to congratulate Richetti and his contributors on expanding the field of literature (the previous edition included chapters on such genres as, for example, memoirs and letters, as well as religious, legal, philosophical, and scientific writing), they are to be commended for adjusting the lenses through which we view literary genres. Fresh perspectives, in turn, lead to more balanced discussions of the novel, of travel writing, of letters. The assessments of some writers may remain strikingly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3192
Print ISSN
0098-2601
Pages
pp. 92-109
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-08
Open Access
No
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