Categories: Literary Criticism

Literary criticism: The influence of scholarship

These attempts to define the nature of literary knowledge took place in a society where the audience for, and purpose of, literary criticism were undergoing a number of changes. A brief outline of these changes will enable the debates about criticism to be set in context, and illuminate the source of many of the tensions that surrounded them: the changing nature of intellectual authority, brought about by the professionalisation and specialisation of disciplines of knowledge. Before its entry into the professionalised environment of the univer- sities, literary criticism was the preserve of the generalist writers known as the ‘men of letters’, who ranged from important public figures such as Bagehot, Mill and Carlyle to a shifting group of writers who scraped an income from the ‘hack-work’ of reviewing. Typically, the man of letters wrote for an educated readership, and published his work in journals and magazines. The major Victorian periodicals – including the Edinburgh Review, Macmillan’s Magazine, the Fortnightly Review, the Cornhill Magazine and the Athenaeum5 – were bought by libraries and reading rooms as well as private individuals, making precise readership numbers difficult to determine: circulation figures of between 7200 (for the Athenaeum in 1854) and 20,000 (for the Cornhill Magazine in the 1870s) conceal an audience that may have been several times higher. Their audience was, nevertheless, ‘a relatively unified group, intelligent, educated, middle- class and serious-minded’, keen to be kept informed of a range of topics which included not only literature (itself a much broader category than it is today) but also history, politics, religion and economics.6 The paradigm of disciplinary development offered by Heyck sees the decline of these men of letters as a direct result of the processes of professionalisation and specialisation. These processes were, in turn, part of a wider set of changes in nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual life. As the century progressed, a series of educational, technological and economic developments altered the constitution of the reading public, with increasing levels of literacy leading to its growth and frag- mentation. These developments were assisted – and capitalised upon – by the invention of cheaper methods of printing and the emergence of publications aimed at the mass market, from popular fiction to Harmsworth’s Daily Mail. The subsequent division between what can simplistically be termed ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture led to the creation of several different ‘reading publics’, each representing a different section of the market. The men of letters could no longer rely on a stable reading public with a homogeneous set of values, or assume that the topics they had covered in the middle of the century would still be accessible and of interest to all.7 In addition, the processes of professionalisation and specialisation meant that disciplines of knowledge – and the intellectual authority associated with them – were being transferred from the public sphere of the knowledgeable generalist to the narrower arena of the academic institution. Consequently, disciplines of knowledge such as history and the social sciences became characterised by a growing focus on particular areas of learning, the adoption of new methodologies and the addressing of a professional peer group made up of other specialists in the field. What was valued, in short, was no longer the knowledge represented by the impressionistic, narrative-based judgements of the men of letters, rooted in the concept of the author as moral authority or ‘sage’, but the knowledge of the expert, marked out by careful research and the use of certain methods and conventions. On a simple level, these methods were used to ensure objectivity and a lack of bias, but they also included a change in style: many experts also wrote in a manner that was designed to differentiate their work from that of the generalists, ensuring that it was no longer accessible to readers who lacked specialist knowledge.8 It is true that literary criticism witnessed a concomitant set of changes, and that by 1880 the ‘professional’ methods of the academic were beginning to be used in a number of books and articles about literature, even those ostensibly aimed at a generalist audience. Such texts turned away from the judgements implied by the term ‘criticism’, and focused instead on those areas of literary study that could draw most closely on the examination of primary material: literary history and biography, and text-editing. A review of David Masson’s The Life of John Milton, published in the Athenaeum in March 1880, drew on the new methods of historical enquiry to challenge Masson’s characterisation of Milton as a heroic, Blakean outcast, marshalling documentary evidence relating to Milton’s arrest and the events of 1660 to support the refutation of Masson’s portrait.9 In the same month, James Spedding’s article in the Cornhill Magazine on ‘The Story of The Merchant of Venice’ dealt with the question of sources and textual provenance, carrying out a detailed comparative study of Shakespeare’s play and Giovanni’s Il Pecorone, and discussing different editions of Shakespeare’s texts, including the Clarendon Press edition and Collier’s Shakespeare’s Library.10 While the men of letters were often compelled to write from memory, sacrificing accuracy to tight deadlines and narrative interest, the new practitioners of a more ‘scientific’ form of criticism – a group that included both jour- nalists and professors – were able to prioritise scholarly precision and a more sustained examination of the available evidence. This shift towards academic practice may have been occasioned by editorial policy. Laurel Brake notes that from the 1870s, the Athenaeum began to assign work to reviewers with specialist knowledge of particular fields, rather than to generalists.11 Nevertheless, the Athenaeum also seems to have tried to maintain the eclecticism on which it had long prided itself, appealing to generalist as well as specialist readers. An anonymous review of Rhoda Broughton’s Second Thoughts, published in the Athenaeum three months after the review of Masson’s Life of Milton quoted above, exemplifies the techniques of the man of letters: its author’s description of Broughton’s ‘impassioned jerkiness and boisterous and ornate familiarity’ and depiction of the novel’s hero as ‘plain, rude, somewhat shrill, uncommonly virtuous and earnest and well informed, a sort of jumble of reminiscences of Jane Eyre ’s Rochester, the coffee palace movement, and the Contemporary Review’ bear all the hallmarks of an evaluative essay designed to inform and entertain the well-read generalist.12 In the early twentieth century, many of the great Victorian periodicals were affected by closure, mergers or declining sales. The Gentleman’s Magazine and Westminster Review both folded in 1914, and were followed by the Fortnightly Review in 1934; the Athenaeum merged with the Nation in 1921 and was taken over by the New Statesman a decade later. The Nineteenth Century, a high literary periodical that was heavily influenced by the theological and ethical debate of the Metaphysical Society, closed in 1900. Other periodicals, such as the Cornhill Magazine, changed to accommodate the demands of a new kind of audience. Under the editorship of Leslie Stephen – who, as noted above, sought to give criticism a more scientific basis – the magazine had been noted for being ‘liber- ally interfused with literary criticism of a high class’.13 Its contributors included John Churton Collins, Edmund Gosse, J. W. Hales and Sidney Colvin, and Culture and Anarchy, Literature and Dogma and Unto this Last had made their first appearance in its pages. Even so, its circulation had fallen and it was relaunched in July 1883 as a more generalist publica- tion, devoting itself to fiction, poetry and articles on more lightweight topics. Meanwhile, the Academy, founded in 1869 by the young Oxf
ord don Charles Appleton as ‘an authoritative intellectual organ to which serious readers could turn for reliable judgments on matters of high culture’, became lighter in tone after 1874 and dwindled into a state of ‘respectability and dullness’ after 1910.14 Some of the more ‘academic’ journals had even shorter runs: the Reader, founded in 1863 and seen by Christopher Kent and John F. Byrne as ‘a self-consciously academic literary weekly’ that appealed to a ‘highly educated, politically liberal, and philosophically radical’ audience, lasted for only four years.15 As literary criticism lost its generalist audience, the next generation of literary periodicals took the form not of academic journals, but of the ‘little magazines’ of Modernism: publications such as The English Review (founded 1908), Rhythm (1911) and The Blue Review (1913), whose small circulations testify to both the increasing specialisation of literary criticism and the perceived obscurity of Modernist debate.16 Specialist academic writing would eventually find a home in the discipline-based journals such as The Year’s Work in English Studies (founded in 1921) and the Review of English Studies (1925), although it is significant to note that these lagged behind their counterparts in other fields by some forty to fifty years: Nature was founded in 1869, Mind in 1870 and the English Historical Review in 1886. Yet the emergence of increasingly ‘academic’ forms of criticism – in both articles and longer works – was not universally accepted. Many critics felt that its emphasis of research and objectivity threatened the special nature of literature. This oppos- ition had been evident in the polarisation of the ‘light literaries’ and the pedants of philology in the debate about the Merton Professorship at Oxford, and persisted in the distaste with which scholars were depicted by writers such as Virginia Woolf, typified by the ‘ungentlemanly’ student who ‘mak[es] the neatest abstracts’ but nevertheless ‘breathes hard, wears a ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight’.17 Such disapproval was often rooted in snobbery rather than in methodological differences: the expansion of the professions meant that the academic gained his status through a different kind of social configuration than that which rested on the older hierarchy of birth. It also drew on a more specific sense of anxiety about how academic literary criticism was carried out, and for what purpose – as well as who ‘owned’ criticism and the knowledge that it produced. Even after literary criticism became a part of institutional syllabuses, its place there was questioned by a number of writers, both inside and outside the universities, who felt that its benefits could not be reduced to a regulated process of scholarship and research. Stephen Potter, author of The Muse in Chains, characterised ‘Ing. Lit’ as ‘the study of the externals of English Literature, from plots to punctuation, in which the educative function of literature, its unique power of expressing, with every degree of directness, absolute difference in men, and the subtle processes by which these differences are achieved, is lost sight of’.18 Stanley Leathes, who helped to reshape the Civil Service examinations in English in the early twentieth century, felt nonetheless that ‘there is danger in submitting the delicate flowers of English literature to the methods of the lecture room, the schedules and tests of the examination room. If in any conditions English literature is being spontaneously studied, it is best to leave those conditions alone.’19 Leathes’s elevation of ‘amateur’ values over those of the ‘professional’ rested on a belief that the kinds of knowledge possessed by the amateur were more genuine than those gained through academic study, which threatened to stifle literature’s humanising power. Other critics shared these feelings, and expressed them in a series of meditations on the value of a scientific approach to literary criticism. In an article published in the Quarterly Review in 1886, John Churton Collins attacked Edmund Gosse for his failure to adhere to standards of scholarly accuracy in his book From Shakespeare to Pope, enumerating a range of mistakes such as errors of chronology, the misidentification of various authors and the designation of certain prose works as poems. For Collins, such errors were ‘not mere slips of the pen’, but the result of ignorance, a sign of the disregard in which serious literary study was held by both Oxford and Cambridge. Nevertheless, while Collins was convinced that the study of literature was ‘worthy of minute, of patient, of systematic study’, he was also cautious about taking such an approach to extremes, railing against the ‘repulsive’ annotation of ‘some historical allusion […] some problem in antiquities, or […] wholly superfluous parallel passages’. His critique of the Clarendon Press editions of the English Classics turned on his belief that its method of annotation was ‘not […] calculated either to enlarge a youth’s mind or to refine his taste; it is still less calcu- lated to awaken rational curiosity, or to inspire a love of literature for its own sake; but, regarded as a mode of discipline, it may possibly, in some cases, be of service in forming and confirming habits of accuracy’.20 Ironically, Collins’s scepticism about the validity of a scholarly approach was shared by Gosse himself, who used the extended metaphor of a chemical reaction to show the unsuitability of quasi-scientific forms of criticism:

Within the last quarter of a century, systems by which to test the authenticity and the chronology of the plays have been produced with great confidence, metrical formulas which are to act as reagents and to identify the component parts of a given passage with scientific exactitude. Of these ‘verse-texts’ and ‘pause-texts’ no account can here be given. That the results of their employment have been curious and valuable shall not be denied; but there is already manifest in the gravest criticism a reaction against excess of confidence in them. At one time it was supposed that the ‘end-stopt’ criterium, for instance, might be dropped, like a chemical substance, on the page of Shakespeare, and would there immediately and finally determine minute quantities of Peele or Kyd, that a fragment of Fletcher would turn purple under it, or a greenish tinge betray a layer of Rowley. It is not thus that poetry is composed; and this ultra-scientific theory showed a grotesque ignorance of the human pliability of art.21
For Gosse, the special nature of art meant that science was too gross and unsophisticated a method to be applied to its study, blurring the more subtle knowledge that could be gained through a sensitive exploration of the literary text’s human dimensions. Meanwhile, W. P. Ker, who was Professor of Literature at Cardiff from 1883 to 1889 and subse- quently Quain Professor at University College, London, articulated his own belief in the special status of literature through his feeling that the literary critic should maintain ‘a certain dignity’ that was not commen- surate with a move towards a more scientific methodology. A concern for the minutiae of scholarly conventions was seen by Ker as a distasteful intrusion:
Books of Science are often very ugly. They have a trick of scattering symbols over their pages. Our philosophers, who ought to know better, have caught this ugly trick. Locke, Berkeley and Hume had more self- respect than to patch themselves with algebra – like Mr. W. S. Jevons and Mr. F. H. Bradley and others. Modern psychologists again will consort with medical students and bring away nasty things out of the dissecting rooms. The older generation had many friends in the faculty of medicine, but they were treated like men of the world; there was no prurient curiosity about the arcana of the profession.22
Ker even complained about the systems of referencing – ‘the classification, the naming, the scientific apparatus’ – that had ‘spoilt’ Alexander Bain’s ‘Emotional Qualities of Style’, claiming rather haughtily that ‘No work can stand high as literature that allows itself to jumble up large type and small type on the same page. The Germans do it, but we know what the Germans are.’23 These reactions against scientific methodology should not, however, be taken as signs of a wholesale move towards a reactionary bellettrism. If the professional authority represented by literary scholarship was viewed as unfavourable (even by some members of the profession itself), it at least made critics aware of a need to defend and define their own methods, often in the form of a search for some kind of accommodation with the demands of objective accuracy. The writer George Saintsbury’s mistrust of ‘the merely dilettante and “tasting” critic’ hinted at a desire for a more rigorous form of critical practice which acknowledged the value of the new scholarship in enabling the critic to ‘hunt the fugitive by a closer trail than usual through the chambers of her flight’.24 Saintsbury regretted that philology had ‘claim[ed] the term “scholarship” exclusively for itself’, as this led to an opposition between philology and literary study that left the latter to a ‘looser æsthetics’, and to those who ‘consider themselves entitled to neglect scholarship in any proper sense with a similarly scornful indifference’. While he felt that literature could ‘never be scientific’, what he sought was a return to a form of critical enquiry which drew on the ‘sufficiently minute’ yet ‘still clung to the literary side proper’, retaining a sense of the perceived ‘difference’ of literature that set it apart from other fields of knowledge.


View Comments

  • Days like this makes me wish I stuck to teaching history & literature…….politics suck.

  • --less exam-ready when it comes to American Literature (only need to borrow notes). Thesis is in the dumps, as usual. XP

  • I know my friends didn't think english language was worth it, and did literature instead. That's going back 8 years though x

  • I shall keep tweeting for as long as you continue to like lyrical literature! I once tried not to be me but...I lost! (oxymoron?)

  • I sat through World Literature, nervously waiting on the last bell to ring. Today after school we were scheduled to have our first

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