- The Passion for the New
It will seem paradoxical to claim that a book published thirty years ago can still inspire new work in eighteenth-century literary studies. Nevertheless, I want to argue precisely that in what follows. At the outset, I should be clear that what remains "new" in The New Eighteenth Century is not precisely what we might expect. The collection's lasting innovation does not lie in its encouragement of certain theoretical methodologies (deconstruction, New Historicism, etc.), or in its insistence on considering the works of noncanonical authors. Although these have shaped our field profoundly for the better, I want to contend that we can locate the enduring newness of The New Eighteenth Century somewhere else: namely, in the sort of reading practices the collection forcefully advocates and demonstrates. The editors and essayists of The New Eighteenth Century ask us to analyze eighteenth-century literature and culture with an eye for those elements that, seen from the perspective of dominant critical opinion, appear as odd, contradictory, or even destabilizing to our current ways of reading and knowing. In doing so, they articulate a conception of critical "newness" that transcends the book's historical moment and endures as a model for contemporary work. [End Page 337]
Let me begin by heading off a possible objection to the claim that The New Eighteenth Century remains innovative. One might argue that, while the collection was original when it first appeared, it now represents our orthodoxy in eighteenth-century studies. At first glance, this objection is hard to refute. In their introduction to The New Eighteenth Century, Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown explain that the "newness" of the collected essays is evident both in their insistence on attending to noncanonical writing and in their adoption of new theoretical methodologies. "Collectively," write Nussbaum and Brown, "we open up texts and issues that have been infrequently discussed: tourist literature, working-class women's poetry, scandal chronicles, and Johnson's 'ghost written' hack works." Nussbaum and Brown go on to note that only recent "trends in theory . . . provide the new context and the conceptual rationale for this revisionist enterprise." In other words, the collection's attention to noncanonical texts is matched by its adoption of certain theoretical methodologies: "feminist, Marxist, new-historical, deconstructive, and psychoanalytic."1
But if The New Eighteenth Century's claim to innovation only rests in its broadening of the canon and its importation of theory, then, thirty years after the collection's appearance, it can be hard to discern anything truly new in its pages. Leaf through recent essays in Eighteenth-Century Studies or wander into a panel at ASECS, and you will find the collection's influence everywhere. It is now common to put canonical texts on equal footing with lesser-known works dug up from the archives; no one would be shocked by an essay that considers Clarissa alongside scandal chronicles, for example. And while scholarship dealing explicitly with New Historicist, deconstructive, and psychoanalytic methodologies (among others) are rarer today than they were decades ago, the central lessons of these theoretical approaches persist, even if only tacitly, in much of our field's best work.
By pointing to the ubiquity of these practices—to the fact that much of our scholarship borrows theoretical insights from, say, Foucault and Derrida, while also happily wandering outside the confines of a ready-made canon—I do not mean to trivialize the influence of The New Eighteenth Century or to dismiss the work it inspired. On the contrary, I think current work in our field is remarkably strong, thanks in large part to the inspiration of books like The New Eighteenth Century. But the very success of Nussbaum and Brown's project raises an important question: what happens when the scholarship of the "new" eighteenth century has become the norm?
In fact, I think The New Eighteenth Century still has things to teach us. A careful reading of the volume will demonstrate that, even thirty years after its appearance, it can help us discern what is critical, novel, and significant in our current scholarship. Nevertheless, establishing what remains "new" in the collection means looking past some of its obvious influences...