This is the draft of a review that will be published (someday, assuming the zombie apocalypse doesn’t strike in the mean time) in Eighteenth-Century Life, a journal targeted to historians and literary scholars. Because Ted Underwood’s work is of interest to the DH community, I thought it was worth posting here.

Ted’s blog is The Stone and the Shell. 

Ted Underwood. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2013). Pp. viii + 199. $35. ISBN: 978-0-8047-8446-7


2014-03-19_1238Although Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (2013) does not devote much attention to the eighteenth century, it should be of great interest to scholars in our field. Over the past twenty years, much work has been done to describe the early, prehistory of literary studies as a discipline. Through the construction of literary canons, national poetic histories, and authorial genealogies, eighteenth-century writers marked out a distinctive domain for literature as a peculiar subset of history with its own language and its own contested political impulses. Whether criticism’s early history is presented as analogous to academic literary studies or as a crucial step in a progressive narrative about the discipline’s development, scholars generally agree that echoes of eighteenth-century thinking remain in our scholarly practice. However, the connection between that history and the present is usually left implied or relegated to brief comments of introduction or conclusion. What connection is there, really, between eighteenth-century historical literary consciousness and the formation of the disciplines in the next century? Even further, what does that early history have to do with the practices of literary scholarship as they evolved over the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries? How might the advent of digital humanities change things in years to come? These very big questions motivate Underwood’s study.

Especially in light of the recent controversy surrounding proposed changes to the Modern Language Association’s period divisions, eighteenth-century scholars should be very interested (and, perhaps, troubled) by a book that periodizes periodization, as Underwood’s does. After introductory chapters on “historical unconsciousness” in romantic-era novels and historical theory, Underwood examines the advent of period survey literature courses in the first English departments of the 1830s and 1840s. His analysis then skips forward to the early twentieth century, when “comparative literature” (a term he usefully historicizes) offered a challenge to the national, period-based curriculum, and from there to the 1990s, when debates over historicism were mirrored in contemporary films. At each of these stages, Underwood argues, the prestige of literary studies was grounded in its ability to draw sharp historical contrasts—to put the past into a “perspective” that “allows an observer to rise above his or her own location and survey the diversity of human history” (79). However, “by the end of the twentieth century,” Underwood avers, “this model of literary history had lost some of its authority” (157). Asking why literary periods mattered, his use of the past tense provocatively suggests that periods don’t matter anymore—or at least that they don’t matter in the same way or for the same reasons. He argues that periodization encourages scholars to emphasize contrasts between historical moments at the cost of ignoring important continuities, and in his final chapter he concludes that “big data,” digital-humanities approaches to literary history might correct this oversight by calling attention to continuous, gradual change over large swaths of time.

Chapter Overview

Underwood’s first two chapters identify a particularly romantic vision of literary history. He compares the novels of Radcliffe, Owenson, and Scott to historical catalog poems like Felicia Hemans’s “The Voice of the Wind” (1828), as well as to the historical theories of Joseph Priestley and T. B. Macaulay. Across this heterogeneous mix of chronologically proximate texts, history “moves gradually into character, where it manifests itself as a mode of cultivation that includes both knowledge of the past and eerie blindness to it” (23). This uncanny combination of feelings about historicity — a sense of loss alongside a sense of connection — is, for Underwood, the defining ambivalence of the period’s emergent historical awareness. It motivates the romantic desire to witness a lost past. Underwood cites an anonymous essay, “On the Study of History” (1826), to this effect: “History alone subjects Man to our knowledge in all conditions and circumstances. States of existence, the most widely separated in nature, are here brought together under our inspection. Circumstances the most dissimilar to those comprehended by our own experience are delineated” (71). The past’s value became tied to its differences from the present, and to read or write about history was to put those differences into an organizing perspective. The unifying abstractions of history writing — “Man,” “nature,” “existence,” indeed the unknowable totality of the past as such — gained meaning in relation to the contrasted parts that made up history’s kaleidoscopic whole.

Frederick Denison Maurice. (Wikipedia)
Frederick Denison Maurice. (Wikipedia)

In the next chapter, Underwood gets to the core of his argument. This romantic vision of contrastive history became institutionalized in English departments in the form of the period survey course. He explains: “the professors who taught English literary history in the 1830s at first clung to an older and more rationalistic model of historical cultivation—one that insisted on the useful continuity of past and present. Only in the 1840s did this developmental rationale for English studies give way to one founded on the paradox (which we no longer find paradoxical) that students could best grasp the unity of English literature by studying a succession of distinct and incommensurable ‘period styles.’ This shift required professors to develop a … course that spent an entire term unfolding the character of a single literary period” (84). To demonstrate this point, Underwood looks closely at the earliest course offerings within English departments, and he attributes the development of the survey course to Frederick Denison Maurice, professor and theologian at King’s College, London. For Maurice, literary history was a spiritual endeavor: it offered a “way of glimpsing the permanence of human continuity in an apparently fleeting historical moment” (109). According to Underwood, the period survey remains our discipline’s defining and unchanging hallmark. Literary studies has witnessed many changes since the 1830s, “but none of those transitions seriously challenged the curricular primacy of the period survey course” (114). Maurice’s innovation, borrowed from romantic-era theories of history, has lingered in our institutional habits long after the original theological impulse faded.

From there, Underwood traces the institutional dynamics of periodization through the early twentieth century, when scholars sought various alternatives to the survey course and its perspectival mode of history. Underwood describes the advent of “comparative literature,” first in theory in the late nineteenth century and, later, in the form of Comparative Literature or General Literature departments. Whereas we now tend to think of comparative literature as the study of parallel national traditions (“comp lit”), Underwood shows that in its first formulation the term meant something very close to literary theory. In H. M. Posnett’s Comparative Literature (1886), the goal was “to explain the transformation of the concept of literature itself, from pre-literate folklore to the present” (118). According to Underwood, comparatists “understood their discipline as peculiarly dedicated to the study of continuity—whether across national, linguistic, or temporal boundaries” (120). This challenge to periodization ultimately failed, Underwood argues, in part because of the institutional inertia of the undergraduate curriculum and in part because of reactionary arguments that depicted causal explanation as a threat to the disciplinary autonomy of literary studies (126-31). However, this autonomy began to unravel in the 1990s, when postmodernism and neoconservatism converged to challenge the historical specificity of past cultures: “popular historical consciousness” is now dominated by “the shared assumption … that the apparent differences between the present and earlier eras will collapse, on examination, into continuity” (154).

Enter digital humanities.

Enter digital humanities. Large-scale quantitative approaches to literary history promise to transform the discipline’s dependence on contrastive history: “Graphing macroscopic trends is troubling,” Underwood states in his introduction, “because it challenges the principle of contrast that has long distinguished literary culture from the forms of learning purveyed by other disciplines” (16). By undermining contrast as such, he explains, “quantification [has] the potential to dissolve the boundaries of culturally significant entities—whether the entities are genres, or periods, or national cultures” (165). As an example of such boundary-defying work, Underwood cites his own macroscopic study of English literary diction. From 1700 to 1900, he shows, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction gradually separated, such that poetry relied more heavily on words descended from Old English, while nonfiction developed a more complex vocabulary from Latin and French (166-68). These changes exemplify the kind of transformations that Underwood claims only computers can see and that, importantly, we lack the critical vocabulary to account for: “Trends of this kind play out on a scale that literary scholars aren’t accustomed to describing, and it may take decades for us to learn how to describe them” (169). This opacity notwithstanding, Underwood argues that “‘distant’ or ‘quantitative’ reading can provide a healthy methodological diversification for literary studies” (170). Whether or not this diversification will actually transform the discipline, Underwood does not predict, but he concludes with a clarion call to potential DHers everywhere: “Someone has to teach students how to understand discourse in a way that combines different methods and scales of analysis: it might as well be us” (175).

Some Quibbles from the Gallery

Someone must do this, Underwood says, because scholars are losing ground. Repeatedly at key points throughout the book, he declares that literary studies’ prestige rests (precariously) on periodization. He portrays this decline as a taken-for-granted backdrop that sets the stakes for everything else. In his chapter on the 1990s, for example, Underwood asserts that “the basic institutions of literary culture lost … much of their authority” (136, see also 3, 15, 159, 163, 174). However, this assertion is strange because nothing in his earlier chapters suggests that literary culture ever enjoyed any special authority. At least, nowhere does Underwood make such a claim explicit, nor does he explain how theories of historicism could possibly affect the discipline’s prestige as such. Underwood treats the loss of authority, not as a topic of investigation, but as an obvious fact that all readers will agree with and feel anxiety about. Underwood marshals this anxiety to support his polemic for the digital humanities, but it’s oddly disconnected from his historical research. It’s also strange because Underwood’s own argument depends on periodization at every turn, a contradiction he acknowledges but does not resolve (130, 164).


This formal tension between the book’s argument and its method might have been addressed had Underwood been more willing to engage the work of other scholars, but he brackets off virtually all scholarship on his larger questions. About the discipline, Underwood cites Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature (1991) and Franklin Court’s Institutionalizing English Literature (1992) but not much else and almost nothing published within the last fifteen years. On the topic of periodization, Underwood discusses only a handful of essays, and those are largely confined to romanticism. Even his engagement with digital humanities is curiously thin: he makes no mention of field-defining essays by Matthew Kirshenbaum, Willard McCarty, John Unsworth, Alan Liu, or others. He briefly cites Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees but mostly ignores scholarship on quantitative methods. [NOTE: For Underwood’s consistently generous online discussions about all things DH, see The Stone and the Shell.] By deliberately suppressing so much of the discussion around his topic, Underwood’s critical method replicates the ideological refusal to acknowledge continuity that he finds at the core of contrastive history. This refusal is out of place in a history of literary studies, and although I wholeheartedly agree that quantitative methods belong in the field, I’m wary of millennial rhetoric that justifies their inclusion by casting literary history as an waning discipline in need of revival. Nothing in Underwood’s book substantiates such a claim.

The great merit of Underwood’s writing is his ability to distill a baggy hodgepodge of scholarly argument to one central, defining problem, but in doing so he sets aside many issues: What is a discipline? What’s the relationship between the undergraduate curriculum and professional scholarship? Who gets to decide the prestige of academic work, and through what process? What’s the relationship between digital humanities and literary studies? Underwood provokes all of these questions but answers none.

These qualms aside, Underwood offers a compelling story about how we got where we are. I wouldn’t want the reservations expressed above to distract from my overall evaluation: Why Literary Periods Mattered will rightly solidify Underwood’s status as one of our foremost thinkers on the history and future of the discipline. It therefore deserves careful reading from all scholars in the field.

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