- Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies by Ted Underwood
The question of why periodization has remained so institutionally entrenched within the literary field is often invoked but seldom analyzed at any length. There tends to be something of a shoulder-shrugging response by many—periodization is seen as a practical [End Page 134] matter, linked to a reinforcing mix of curricular demands, research economies, and market realities. It’s simply how we organize the field, it has a useful functionality, and it has become embedded in ways that, given institutional inertia, seem intractable and ultimately unobjectionable. While certain job announcements seem to evade the iron cage of periodization, such as those for queer theory, and digital humanities, they also seem to remain transient or marginal phenomena along with various discernible hybrids such as “nineteenth-century transatlantic literature.” Almost everyone, even those who have moved away from the period in which they were trained and hired, seems to present themselves in terms of a period-based narrative of identity. I often see myself, truth be told, as something of a lapsed Victorianist.
Ted Underwood’s fascinating book, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies, aims to uncover the history and social logic of periodization in literary studies. The nineteenth century is the focal point for his analysis. For Underwood, periodization is fundamentally expressed through a framework of discontinuity: periods are bounded and different from one another, like Foucauldian epochs or Kuhnian paradigms. They emerge both within literature and the university as part of a broader social process of change in which the middle class asserts self-cultivation as a form of distinction superior to aristocratic lineage and landed property.
Underwood locates within the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century historical novel the expression and solicitation of new forms of historical consciousness (Sir Walter Scott’s novels play a central role here, as one might expect, but there are also striking readings of Ann Radcliffe and Lady Morgan). In this literature, cultivation of self-understanding through historical perspective becomes a valorized practice that helps to secure prestige. The analysis then extends to related genres such as the historical catalog poem and certain forms of educational doctrine. Most striking in this section is the focus not on a familiar understanding of historical consciousness, but on the modern aesthetic effects of bewilderment, opacity, and vertigo that are seen to inhere in many of the depictions of a protagonist’s encounter with the past. It is as though one is seeing in unlikely places enduring forms of literary and critical complexity, as they are routed through an existentially resonant self-cultivating process that dramatizes experiences of uncertainty, awe, and defamiliarization. Indeed, in a rather interesting twist on the tendency to see the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the literary crucible of modern subjectivity, Underwood locates a form of emergent cultural distinction in this era; he sees it as expressive not only of middle-class identity but also of intellectual modes and values that come to define the literary discipline. Thus we have not so much the birth of the domestic subject or interiority, but rather the emergence of the attuned subject— insightful and productively unsettled at once, like a gifted literary critic.
Perhaps the most fascinating section of this wonderfully surprising and unpredictable book is the treatment of the curricular development of the literature survey in mid-nineteenth-century British universities. Underwood establishes the fact that the emergence of the period survey in the 1840s, spearheaded by a few key individuals, including most centrally F. D. Maurice at King’s College, London, preceded professionalism by nearly half a century. Underwood attributes the development of the survey to the same broad agenda at play in the literature of the preceding era. It is a project aimed at the middle class and built on a conception of the cultivating power of historical [End Page 135] understanding across the reach of time and difference...