- New Literary History at 50Reflections and Futures
When rita felski assumed the editorship of New Literary History just over ten years ago, she invoked John of Salisbury's twelfth-century Metalogicon and the famous image (attributed to Bernard of Chartres) of dwarves seated on the shoulders of giants: a notion well suited to her thoughts on the daunting prospect of succeeding the journal's founding editor, Ralph Cohen. On succeeding Rita Felski in turn, I am put in mind of the opening sentence of the Policraticus, John of Salisbury's more rambunctious work of humanistic observation: "Although pleasurable in many ways, the pursuit of letters is especially fruitful because it excludes all annoyances stemming from differences of time and place, it draws friends into each other's presence, and it abolishes the situation in which things worth knowing are not experienced."1 This caustically optimistic view of a transhistorical republic of letters rings true to a new editor's ears, tuned as they are to the simultaneous joys and challenges of leading this storied journal and its particular pursuit of letters into the immediate future.
Rita Felski's own will to transcend time and place in the pages of New Literary History is reflected in the variety of historical and theoretical topics her special issues have explored, as well as the colloquial spirit she brought to the editorship through the many intimate gatherings and major conferences arranged over the last decade, all of them organized around things worth knowing and knowing anew, to borrow from John of Salisbury again. One measure of the excitement she brought to NLH can be discerned in the large percentage of the essays coming across our transom that rely fundamentally on her work, which remains at the center of current discussions around modes of reading after the so-called postcritical turn. It is humbling to follow in her footsteps and take on the formidable task ahead. I am deeply grateful to her for the wisdom and counsel she has provided over the last eighteen months, and (like everyone else who reads this journal) in awe of where she has taken NLH over the last ten years. [End Page v]
New Literary History began as the 1960s closed, publishing its first issue in October of 1969 and inaugurating a fifty-year run that has helped shape the contours of literary study over several generations. It would be difficult to name a prominent figure in theory and criticism who has not published work at one point or another in its pages. Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Paul Ricoeur, Stanley Cavell, Fredric Jameson, Martha Nussbaum, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wolfgang Iser, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Stanley Fish, Hayden White, Richard Rorty, and more recently Bruno Latour, Sara Ahmed, Graham Harman, and Wai Chee Dimock—the illustrious lists go on, and on, and on, drawn from every school of criticism and every theoretical disposition, from French feminism and poststructuralism to new materialism and object-oriented ontology, from Marxism and cultural materialism to ecocriticism, critical race theory, and new historicism. As Cixous herself remarked in these pages some years ago, the longevity of NLH itself represents "a coherence in the world of letters … a proof of, and a metaphor for, the world-wide need to think and save literature."2
Nor has the journal, despite its title, limited itself to the literary. Perspectives from other fields and paradigms have long enriched its intellectual mission to plumb the depths of literary history, politics, genre, and form from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, often seemingly far afield. Past issues have featured essays by Stephen Jay Gould on the science of form, Marshall McLuhan on performance, and the composer and conceptual writer John Cage, who published one of the original fragments of his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) in a special issue on "Modernism and Postmodernism" in 1971.3 Historians of art, theater, and music, as well as philosophers, classicists, and historians, have figured prominently among its hundreds of contributors over the years.
One of the editorial delights of this coming anniversary year has been the excuse it has afforded to browse...