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Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies
by Ted Underwood

Reviewed by Jay Jin


Published:

Published by Stanford University Press, 2015   |   216 pages

It can be easy today to take for granted the notion of English departments, often without the need for any further specification: one does not need to clarify that departments of English are, in fact, departments of English literature. Yet, as Ted Underwood notes in Why Literary Periods Mattered, in 1903 the University of Chicago employed one Richard Moulton as “Professor of Literary Theory and Interpretation” in the “General Literature” department. The department’s official subjects of study were the “Theory of Literature” and “Comparative Literature.” Underwood’s point here is to estrange us from the ideas and connotations that the term “English department” evokes today. In Why Literary Periods Mattered Underwood investigates the transformation of English departments since the early nineteenth century, and identifies the running thread through their many changes as periodization—the idea that we can study discrete historical-literary “periods” (romanticism, realism, modernism, etc.). By dividing literary history into unique periods to compare and contrast, English departments could begin to cultivate an aura of cultural prestige by emphasizing the power of literature to “mediate historical change and transmute it into community.”

More generally, Why Literary Periods Matters traces the emergence of the periodized model alongside the historical development of English departments, and its subsequent stabilization amidst significant upheavals to the canon and to pedagogical practices over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. Underwood also notes current disciplinary interests in computational research methods and asks, “what might replace [the periodized model] if…the authority of historical contrast has in recent decades been declining.” In this sense, the six chapters of Why Literary Periods Mattered can be thought of as two projects. The first five chapters form a work of institutional history that investigates why and how periodization became the de-facto organizing principle of undergraduate English curricula everywhere. The sixth and last chapter reframes the question of periodization with a defense of large-scale quantitative analysis in literary scholarship, and, more broadly, the digital humanities. Quantitative methods operating on the scale of thousands of literary text, it is argued, allow us to uncover and examine trends and changes in literary history previously hidden.

The standard narrative about the origins of professional academic English departments is most articulately found in Gerald Graff’s influential institutional history Professing Literature. According to Graff, the discipline that we today call “English” was born out of a struggle in the late 19th century between the more research-oriented model derived from philology and the belles-lettristic and moral-instructional humanism of Matthew Arnold—who famously defined “culture” as “the means of getting to know…the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” As Graff puts it:

The union of Arnoldian humanism and scientific research which gave birth to academic literary studies was never free from strain. Traditional humanists argued that the compartmentalization of literature in narrowly specialized and disconnected ‘fields’ and the glorification of quantitative ‘production’ in research tended to undermine Arnold’s ideal of broad general culture and his view of literature as a coherent criticism of life.

One consequence of this dominant narrative, Underwood remarks, is that the history of teaching English literature prior to 1850 is largely seen as a battle between philology, moral-instruction, and belles-lettres, and “when disciplinary projects of the 1830s fail to fit any of these templates, researchers commonly solve the problem by explaining that professors were confused, or torn between the competing claims of several familiar projects.”

Underwood therefore aims to locate the origins of English literature as an autonomous discipline precisely in the years before 1850, and he does so by placing those origins in the context of the rise of a periodized model of history at the turn of the 19th century. As he frames it, intellectuals of the rising middle-class sought to replace the aristocratic model of inheritance and historico-political continuity with a contrary historical narrative that allowed for more sudden and discontinuous change. This latter model of history found its way into the English university in the 1840s, motivated “by an explicitly-articulated belief that middle-class students needed a kind of perspective that only historical contrast could provide.” The new conception of English literature could serve the purpose of unifying an increasingly literate and ideologically diverse populace. Courses that focused on discrete historical periods of literary style advanced, in Underwood’s words:

a model of historical time where the present is bound to the past, not by continuous tradition or progress, but by an exercise of historical imagination that leaps over differences of place, time, and culture to establish a human community whose timeless scope is dramatized by the very difference it negates.

Often, this “human community” of “timeless scope” was synonymous with national identity, an identification that persists today in the form of academic “fields”: the academic job market, for example, still calls for “nineteenth-century Americanists,” or “Victorianists.”

By 1950, “periodization persisted because it allowed literary scholars to avoid reliance on other disciplines, and organize themselves instead around contrasted systems of purely critical norms.” Indeed, the practice of “close reading” that came to dominate English departments in the United States during the 1940s and 50s—what Jane Gallop has described as “the very thing that made [English literature] a discipline, that transformed us from cultured gentlemen into a profession”—was largely predicated on the work of the New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, who attempted to juxtapose anew the established literary periods that had been handed down to them by previous literary scholars. According to them, modern poets like T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens were to be read in continuity with previously neglected seventeenth-century metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert, whom they elevated in stature even as they demoted previously celebrated poets in the Romantic and Victorian periods. Through close scrutiny of texts themselves instead of historical circumstances and biographical details, wholly distinct literary traditions, previously overlooked, came to light—a reshuffling, in other words, of the canon by revaluing its periods and the poets in them.

Underwood’s final chapter argues for the function and usefulness of the digital humanities, a broadly encompassing term that can include media studies, video game studies, and what Underwood focuses on in Why Literary Periods Mattered: the application of quantitative analysis to vast numbers of texts simultaneously. Though Underwood quickly introduces a graph representing the diversity of diction across the three genres of poetry, prose fiction, and nonfiction from 1700 to 1899, his main purpose in this final chapter is to provide a theoretical defense of such methods. (His practical defenses, experiments, and analyses can be found on his blog, The Stone and the Shell.) Thus, his central defense of quantitative analyses centers on their ability “to describe change without articulating it as a series of discrete phases.” In this way, quantitative analysis allows its practitioners to study literary history without relying exclusively on a periodized model.

Underwood’s comments in his final chapter remain fairly general overall, but he importantly foregrounds what has been largely submerged in literary discourse for over half a century, and what has only recently become visible thanks to not just the methods practiced in the digital humanities but the debates surrounding them as well: the issue of scale. Franco Moretti, another scholar that has promoted the use of quantitative methods and who has been a primary object of scorn from traditional literary critics (“That is poison” writes Lindsay Waters, referring to Moretti’s project of “distant reading), puts the problem bluntly: “Knowing two hundred novels is already difficult. Twenty thousand? How can we do it, what does ‘knowledge’ mean, in this new scenario?” When we consider the number of texts that an individual scholar can read and consider, and compare it to the number of texts that were actually published, circulated, debated, and read, in any reasonably long time span (say, at least a decade or two), the point is well taken: quantitative analysis can produce types of knowledge that until recently have been inaccessible. There are limits to the interpretive practices of literary scholars, and as processes of digitizing and cataloging archives have progressed, programs that can sort through, cross-reference, and tabulate all that data have progressed also. Why not take advantage of them?

For Underwood then, traditional periodization is entwined with modes of interpretation that have operated on the scale of the text, a few texts, or perhaps even a few dozen. It is the scale of Ian Watt’s seminal book The Rise of the Novel, based on readings of a handful of texts by Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Once we increase the volume of texts under analysis by orders of magnitude, however, Underwood argues that we need quantitative analysis:

There is no technical reason why quantitative methods cannot be applied to individual works. But human readers are already very good at interpreting writing at that scale, and it may be a long time before computers add much to our achievements. On the other hand, we find it difficult to reason about continuous gradients of change involving thousands of volumes.

As Mark McGurl, a colleague of Moretti’s at Stanford, eloquently articulates, the goal is not to “replace short timescales with longer ones in literary criticism…[but] to allow the question of scale to have some analytical force in our practice rather than becoming an intellectual resting point, a given.”

These are the central stakes of Why Literary Periods Mattered, and the central answer to the implicit question raised by the title. Periods mattered because they allowed for English to carve for itself a position of cultural prestige that has been waning in the past decades, and to develop into an autonomous discipline within the university. Periods still matter because they allow for a particular scale of reading that removes the need to consider scale at all—select poets are representative of and characterize their period. Quantitative methods reintroduce the possibility of tracing continuous development and change, and they reintroduce the problems of scale that may have long been hidden, but were never absent.


Jay Jin is an English PhD candidate at the University of California Los Angeles. He specializes in 20th century modernist literature and science fiction, with an interest in interdisciplinary research on the hard sciences.

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