Five Questions: Ted Underwood on Why Literary Periods Mattered

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Ted Underwood - Why Literary Periods MatteredTed Underwood is a Professor and the LAS Centennial Scholar of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  His graduate work was in the field of Romanticism and led, among other places, to his first monograph, The Work of the Sun: Literature, Science, and Political Economy, 1760-1860.  His current research explores the possibilities opened up by digital technologies for working on large collections of texts written over considerable periods of time; some of his recent progress in this area is detailed in his interim report Understanding Genre in a Collection of a Million Volumes.  Below, we discuss his fascinating book Why Literary Periods Mattered, first published by Stanford University Press in 2013 and now available in paperback.  Ted blogs at The Stone and the Shell and can be found on Twitter @Ted_Underwood.

1) How did you first become interested in the importance of periodisation to the identity of literary studies?

It’s interesting, because the book project started out with a different goal — more about writers’ emotional investment in historical difference as a paradoxical model of the afterlife.  In 2002, when I published an early draft of a chapter in PMLA, that was what I expected the book to be about.

But I also wanted to flesh that intellectual thesis out with a more institutional, social story, and to get that material I did about a month of archival research at the University of London.  It was there that I realized this could also be a story about disciplinary history, because period survey courses and the historicist afterlife seemed to work in very similar ways.  And then, frankly, my editor (Emily-Jane Cohen) and Adam Potkay (one of my readers) encouraged me to keep moving in the direction of disciplinary history.  So I ended up dropping a whole chapter on the later nineteenth-century novel and writing a new one on twentieth-century curricula.  It improved the book.

2) When Romanticists think about our predecessors in the period which we classify ourselves as studying, we tend to jump first to writers who are recognisably critical, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt.  Your book makes clear that in fact the shape of literary studies has drawn considerably on discourses derived from popular histories (in numerous forms, including charts created by Joseph Priestley) and from the historical novel, most notably the works of Walter Scott, which developed the kinds of contrastive histories which inspired the first periodised English courses.  How do you think reclaiming these antecedents helps us better to understand the natures of what we do and what those we study did?

I think you’ve phrased this very well.  Scholars always like to trace academic genealogies that are internal to their own discipline.  We play down the influence of other disciplines, and of broader trends in social and cultural history.  You see the same thing in digital humanities right now: there’s a huge pressure to find ancestor figures who were “pioneering humanists.”  We play down connections to the social sciences, and to popular enthusiasm about the internet; those genealogies are embarrassing.  For me the lesson is to be wary of the power disciplines exert over our imagination.

3) Why do you think that periodisation has proved to be such a resilient organising principle for English curricula?

Here again I’m inclined to emphasize a disciplinary raison d’état.  By the twentieth century, a vision of literary history organized around discrete schools and movements had become a really central part of the cultural capital that literature departments were empowered to distribute.  Social scientists could argue about causes, and historians could trace continuities, but we had a lock on the discrete quiddities of classicism, romanticism, and so on.  I frankly think periodisation endured for what you might call marketing reasons.

We haven’t always acknowledged this rationale overtly.  In the early twentieth century, for instance, the debate played out as a question about “cultivation.”  Movements like comparative literature and the history of ideas that tended to weaken emphasis on periodisation were portrayed as too intellectual; they threatened to undermine the cultivation of character that literary education was supposed to produce.  But in my view this was, in effect, a high-minded way of saying “You’re diluting our disciplinary brand.”

4) How do you think that reducing the emphasis which we place on contrasting periods might benefit English Studies?

I’m not at all opposed to teaching period surveys.  That kind of focus has value, and it’s something we’re already trained to do well.

But I do think there are also other things we could be doing.  I’m sympathetic to the argument Jo Guldi and David Armitage have been making in The History Manifesto, to the effect that history needs to reclaim its public significance by embracing a longue durée.  I suspect that’s also true for literary studies.  But I have to admit, I’m not sure I know yet what the public significance of a literary longue durée would look like — because frankly, I don’t think we understand our longue durée very well yet.  This may be a case where we have to do more research before we’ll know what we could be teaching.

5) Since the book’s publication, how have you been using digital methods to address the ‘blind spots of literary scholarship’ to which periodising models contribute?

As a grad student, I thought we basically understood the broad contours of nineteenth-century literary history.  You know, romanticism, realism, modernism; the big outlines at least were going to be stable.

But as digital libraries and quantitative methods make it possible to actually look at a picture composed of thousands of volumes, I and other researchers keep stumbling over broad, continuous trends that don’t line up well with existing periodising concepts.  These larger trends don’t necessarily displace a concept like “romanticism”: that’s still a word with real uses.  But it’s becoming clear that there are also other scales of literary change that we don’t understand, and may not even have glimpsed.

In the book I gave one example of a big trend we’ve been blind to — a linguistic differentiation of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth.  I just looked at one aspect of that trend in the book, but I’ve gotten more evidence since then which suggests that the diction of these genres really became more dissimilar overall.  It’s quite opposite to the notion I was taught — that romanticism ended specialized poetic diction, and poetry thereafter became more like other forms of writing.

But that’s just one example; there are a lot of people making similar arguments.  Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac have a brilliant pamphlet about a gradual shift from abstract to concrete language in nineteenth-century fiction.  In a recent ALH article, Matthew Wilkens has shown that geographical emphases in American literature changed more gradually than scholars have thought.  Hoyt Long, Richard So, and I recently collaborated on a piece for Slate that traces some long slow changes in the rhetorical function of money in fiction.  Jordan Sellers and I are at work right now on a piece about the history of literary evaluation, which argues that the literary standards embodied in reviews of poetry remained remarkably stable from 1820 through 1920 — and when they changed, changed in a direction that remains remarkably consistent over the whole century.  This will be coming out in a special issue of MLQ that I’m organizing with James English.

I realize this is all going to be controversial, and sometimes our specific claims will turn out to be wrong.  But I’m increasingly confident at least about the negative premise of these arguments — the notion that we don’t already understand literary history at the century-long scale.  I am pretty sure we don’t.

There’s potentially a huge opportunity here for grad students, but it’s also unfortunately difficult for students to develop a research project at this scale.  It takes interdisciplinary training, and it may also just take more than one pair of hands.  The Stanford Literary Lab has done a good job of solving these problems; that’s the model I’d like to reproduce at Illinois.