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  • Notes for a History of New Literary History
  • Ralph Cohen

I. Volumes 1–12 (1969–1981)

After fifteen years of teaching in the Departments of Philosophy and English at UCLA, I decided to accept the invitation to join the English Department at the University of Virginia. That university was at the beginning of a major educational transformation, and I was attracted to this experiment. In the field of eighteenth-century studies, they had two eminent scholars, Irvin Ehrenpreis and Martin Battestin, who had persuaded the department to bring me as a third scholar in Enlightenment studies. This was part of a more general effort to bring the University of Virginia back to its role as a national university from what had become a confederate state university. This story of a return to Jefferson's model has been told before, and it has nothing to do with the creation of New Literary History. I came to Virginia to teach, to write, to do research—not to initiate a journal. Indeed neither Fredson Bowers, the chair of the department, nor the president, Edgar F. Shannon Jr., knew that one of the reasons for leaving UCLA was that the chancellor had refused to provide funds for initiating a journal.

In time I met with President Shannon and asked for his support to start a journal. As I made clear, this would be in addition to my teaching, my research, and any additional tasks as a faculty member. The president, who had done his graduate work in English at Yale, a center for the New Criticism, was not enthusiastic about the future of such a historical venture, but he generously agreed to support it for three years. If it had not by then become self-supporting or achieved scholarly approval, his support would cease. Thus New Literary History was founded as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the University of Virginia in 1969.

While at UCLA, I had been an editor of Augustan Reprints, a series of short works that had not been reprinted since their original publication in the eighteenth century. It served as a correction to scholarly neglect even though some of these works had a relevance for the present. I was [End Page A1] also trustee of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. I had published in numerous scholarly journals but felt the need for a journal that connected the study of literature with history and other relevant disciplines. I felt the need to connect literature with art, philosophy, anthropology, and other disciplines with which it was involved. And, above all, I felt the need for writing which engaged views that differed, and I thought that journal writings should supply that need. Writers who disagreed about the nature of evidence, of interpretation, of theories of history should at least consider the possibility of reconciliation. I envisioned a journal that would be a learning experience, a literary study that was related to history, to theory, and to innovative interpretation.

The 1960s was a turbulent decade in the United States, and universities—especially state universities—were not exempt. The University of Virginia, however, was going through its own transformation and sesquicentennial celebration, with the English Department hiring a faculty taken from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, a faculty trained in the midst of the Vietnam War, civil rights marches, women's rights struggles, and the resentments resulting from conventional and often outdated university instruction. When I proposed to my colleagues a plan for a new type of journal, only a few were interested in a project that seemed distant from specific study of poems and fictions.

At this time, the dominant mode of literary study was the New Criticism, a procedure of careful and close reading marked by analytical attention to individual compositions. As an alternative to this, New Literary History seemed to some scholars even worse than what it was to replace. "English Literary History" was frequently identified as a nineteenth-century practice that consisted of "national biography," or "the story of the English mind." René Wellek characterized such studies as lacking any real historical evolution or any adequate history of literature as art. As he put it, such writings were either literary histories...


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