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  • Ralph Cohen on Literary Periods:Afterword as Foreword
  • John L. Rowlett (bio)


In 1970 new literary history published "A Symposium on Periods" in its inaugural volume, making clear that any "new literary history" would need to rethink inherited views of literary periods. With that issue editor Ralph Cohen offered the journal's readers the first interdisciplinary reconsideration of this space-time concept and its role in the analysis of aesthetic change. Although none of the fourteen distinguished scholars presented a theory of periodization, and although contributors did not refer to the same period concepts, there was general agreement that period classifications of some kind were necessary in order to account for the unifying continuities and discontinuities that characterize any temporal series of objects under study, as well as to explain their displacement or supersession by an alternative series. In his introductory contribution, art historian Meyer C. Shapiro identifies two salient criteria of periods among the five "Criteria of Periodization in the History of European Art" that seem, generally speaking, undeniable: 1) "Since development is gradual and uneven, periodizing must be vague in its boundaries. The types of art which seem distinct in the particular works cited in defining the types become less distinct when we try to specify the earliest and latest examples of the types. And in some periods there are opposed styles with forms that resist classification as elements of a common art"; and 2) "Independent of conflicting period concepts and common to all of them as a basic datum and axis of reference is the irreversible order of single works located in time and space. Whether Poussin is called Baroque or Classic, his work belongs to a definite time and place, and this position entails restrictions on all interpretations and explanations of his art."1

The commentary on the symposium papers comes from philosopher Francis E. Sparshott, who, resisting assumptions about periodization, accuses his "fellow-contributors of erring (if at all) on the side of monism." In turn, he retaliates, "I shall indulge my own pluralism to the [End Page 129] point of fragmentation."2 Two of his fragmentary remarks are especially pertinent to periods and have continued to arise as open theoretical issues: 1) "Apparently some sort of periodization is almost necessary for historical description, and a sort of quasi-periodization is quite necessary. Because this is so, its introduction does not suffice to commit one to any kind of metaphysics or ontology, or indeed to anything beyond the goal of intelligibility. … The foregoing abstract and formal remarks on periods are not only inadequate but somewhat absurd, because with all their talk about purposes they have included nothing about the historian's own purpose"3; and 2) "Many champions of intrinsic periodization deny that analogous periods recur. … Yet the case cannot be fully sustained. If a period can be described in general terms at all, the description must, merely from the logical requirement of generality, be applicable to whatever other periods it may fit, and there is no way of guaranteeing that there will be none such. … The only way to identify a period non-repeatably is by abjuring description altogether, and pointing to objects or space-time coordinates for which no significance or congruence is claimed but which are confessedly arbitrary."4 Sparshott is correct to admonish historians for neglecting to announce their own aims. Moreover if consensus about analogous periods among literary historians might be supported by comprehensive theorizing of the differences among literary periods in some compelling sense, then Sparshott's commentary might suggest not just a disagreement, but a disciplinary gap between philosophic logic and historical concepts—a gap that involves the differential ordering of, and descriptive generalizations about, particular historical objects whose nature and interconnections are far from simply logical.

Two decades later, with little apparent advance having been made on the problems of periodization for literary history other than that of clarification, David Perkins, inquiring into the very possibility of literary history, acknowledges that "at present, we tend to regard periods as necessary fictions. They are necessary because … one cannot write history or literary history without periodizing. Moreover, we require the concept of a unified period in order...


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pp. 129-139
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