- Planned Obsolescence
Not long ago, scholars and students looking for summative guides to eighteenth-century poetry had few options. One reached for the relevant volume of The Cambridge History of English Literature or dusted off James Sutherland’s A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (1948; 1975). Nowadays we have no shortage of handbooks, companions, and introductions at hand. First to be published was David Fairer’s English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, 1700–1789 (Pearson, 2003). Next came Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Wiley, 2009). Most recently is John Sitter’s Cambridge Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Poetry (2011). Among multiauthored guides, The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry (hereafter CC), edited by Sitter, appeared in 2001, followed in 2006 by Wiley’s A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry (hereafter WC), edited by Christine Gerrard. With forty-three chapters, Jack Lynch’s Oxford Handbook of British Poetry, 1660–1800 (hereafter OH) is the latest, and most impressive, installment in this recent succession of guidebooks. [End Page 104]
The appearance of Lynch’s volume raises questions about publishing. Why the sudden explosion of companions, handbooks, and other comprehensive treatments? What needs do they serve? An Internet search reveals hundreds of such volumes across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, from the Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Music and Cambridge Companion to Quakerism, to the Routledge Companion to Urban Regeneration, most from the last fifteen years. At a time when the halls of academe resound with rumors of press marketing units overruling acceptances from editorial boards, one immediately suspects profit drives this vogue. Publishing a monograph on a single author or theme does not pay anymore; comprehensive guides expand a book’s potential buyers across all subfields in a discipline. Some of these recent handbooks are affordable, but others are expensive enough to deter individual purchasing. To return production costs, these handbooks primarily target institutional buyers. Promising an encyclopedic sweep and staying power, and often available in digital form, these volumes appeal to cash-strapped university libraries often declining to purchase new monographs on the gamble that another institution in their regional borrowing consortium will do the buying for them. Meanwhile, handbooks and companions have no shortage of eager contributors. As the monograph market dries up, such volumes give scholars venues to demonstrate their required “research impacts.”1
Perhaps marketing dictates the misleading titles for such volumes. From the seventeenth century until very recently, a companion or a handbook was a vade mecum, “a book or manual suitable for carrying about with one for ready reference” (OED). Defined by portability and accessibility, it was meant for the bedside or the road; by contrast, weighing in at nearly 800 pages, tomes like OH will not comfortably fit on your nightstand, or in your suitcase, unless one has an iPad and an Oxford Handbooks Online log-in handy. Such bulky volumes might be unrecognizable to Pope’s contemporaries, for whom “handbook” specified relatively slender guides, like The Country Gentleman’s Vade-Mecum (1717) and The Student’s Companion (1725). One might argue that the handbook label now serves mainly to distinguish some academic books from others, creating a new demand. As Lynch states, OH “is not a chronologically organized literary history, nor an encyclopedia, nor a collection of thematically related essays” (xix). This is true, but since such a handbook presumably competes for purchasers with the Wiley Encyclopedia of British Literature, 1600–1789 (2015) and The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780 (2005), the emphasis on [End Page 105] filling a different niche than encyclopedias and histories is perhaps too convenient. That every few years a new handbook appears claiming to be the “authoritative and comprehensive” volume makes one wonder if such language is empty advertising rhetoric.
Twentieth-century literary histories — replete with overgeneralizations and snobbish exclusions — serve in volumes like Lynch’s as foils, buttressing their sanguine claims to true comprehensiveness. No one will regret discarding the glib, reductive overviews of a Bonamy Dobrée for the nuanced treatments by Lynch’s stable of specialists. But what makes these...