What is Literary History?
What is literary history? Ask scholars and teachers of literature and you’ll get several conflicting answers. For some it’s the structuring principle of the discipline, defining areas of expertise for journals, conferences, and job ads. For others it’s a curricular problem to overcome, or a normative view of culture. As a body of knowledge, it consists of exemplary works that transcend their time and representative ones that must be understood in context. It is the development of the spirit or identity of a polity (such as a nation) and the coming-to-voice of the marginalized. It is the internal evolution of genre, form, or style and the external force of the sociopolitical world on writing.
This seminar is intended for graduate students whose interests in literature and/or culture lie primarily in the past (i.e., in the time before our own) and who desire a better understanding of (1) the fascination with literary history, from the pull our objects of study exert on our imaginations to the public’s enduring enthusiasm about the works of the past; (2) the literary-historical theories and methods that come down to us, including new historicism, cultural materialism, reader response, book history, historical formalism, and distant reading; and (3) what it means to be “historical” at a time of narrowing horizons for the humanities in U.S. higher education and public life. Readings will cross periods and disciplines and will include work by the foundational theorists of literary history (Nietzsche, Auerbach, Jameson, Gallagher, Greenblatt), the leading voices of the last two decades (Guillory, Dimock, Felski, Damrosch), and three recent monographs that will serve as case studies: Stephen Best’s None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, Ted Underwood’s Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change, and Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. In addition to writing a seminar paper and carrying out three short archival research exercises on a primary text of their choice, students will gain practical experience in academic publishing through behind-the-scenes editorial work at UW’s in-house journal, Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History.
Keywords: literary history, literary theory, archival research, and methodology.