Literary History

Peter KeatingI have been interested in literature and history for pretty well as long as I can remember. And not only that, but equally so in both subjects. While still at primary school, I was regularly queuing up at the local public library with other reading-obsessed nine or ten year olds, eagerly comparing notes between ourselves, in order to borrow the maximum daily allowance of books.  I think the limit was three, or perhaps it was only two. Whatever the number, it was important for us to get hold of as many as possible because there was a ban on the borrowing and returning of books on the same day.

‘It’s not allowed,’ the librarian would grumble when we tried taking our books back just before the library closed in the evening. ‘And, anyway, you can’t possibly have read them already.’

But we usually had.  We were all speed-readers in those days. And sometimes, even though it was against the rules, the librarian would give in and let us change the books, moved, I imagine, by our pleas that we simply had to have something new to read at home later that evening and early the next morning.  He would certainly have understood that there were no other remotely suitable books in our homes and that he was our only source.

The literature I went for then was an indiscriminate jumble of novels, poetry, and plays, supposedly chosen from the children’s section of the library, but with no awareness on my part whether they had been written originally for children or adults. The first history books I can recall reading were clearly aimed at children.  I remember with particular affection a series of short biographies of famous people from world history. Nelson, Cortez, Joan of Arc, Oliver Cromwell and suchlike, every one of them a colourful, romantic, inspirational figure. I don’t suppose I ever did succeed in reading my way through the entire series, but for what seemed to be an agonizingly long period of time that was something I was desperately eager to do.  

As the years passed, the number of books I wanted to read in a day diminished, but the types of books remained much the same.  If I had gone to university at the customary age of eighteen or so,  I know I would have been unsure whether to read English Literature or History. Fortunately, that decision was postponed for a few years and then answered for me.  At the age of twenty-three I was offered a place as a ‘mature’ student at the newly founded University of Sussex where the traditional subject-based university system was being replaced by one in which academic subjects, or disciplines, were grouped together in schools of study.

This meant that students no longer had to decide between one specific subject and another. It was still necessary to choose a main subject, and for me there was no difficulty in settling on English Literature, but I was also expected to take other subjects as well, and History was happily there as an obvious choice. It would, of course, have been possible for me to take both English Literature and History at many other, longer established universities, though not in quite the same way as at Sussex. The two subjects tended to be kept separate, very separate usually, with one of them classified as major and the other as subsidiary. The newness of Sussex lay in its expressed desire to treat these subjects, or disciplines, not in isolation from each other, but as a means of encouraging the exploration of possible links between them.

This process carried the rather cumbersome academic label of interdisciplinary studies, and it was clear from the start that moving between or across disciplines wasn’t something that suited everyone.  Many students, and some of the teaching staff as well, simply continued to concentrate on a main subject and treated the others as secondary. Not that this mattered greatly. After all, the main interdisciplinary aim at this undergraduate level was to raise awareness of how different subjects functioned, not to enforce connections between them. From this point of view the system appeared to be working well.    

It had always been the case that for some subjects it was difficult to identify where the assumed interdisciplinary connections were to be found, but for English Literature potentially worthwhile links with other subjects were clear, numerous, and always had been. Learning to understand the nature of those links through interdisciplinary studies was surely a certain way out of academic narrowness.  Not for much longer, it was felt, could English Literature stand alone as an academic subject, a right it had once fought strongly for and successfully attained.  

And that prediction was all too correct, or perhaps half correct. Proud, independent English Literature was taken over all right, comprehensively and with remarkable speed. The victory, though, went not to interdisciplinary studies but to literary theory. Or more precisely, to various literary theories, because no one theory informed the entire effort.  The result was not a greater unification of subjects, but increased fragmentation.

The main approach to English Literature that interdisciplinary studies had aimed to overthrow, before they were upstaged in the ambition by literary theory, was known as ‘practical criticism’.  This method of reading and analysing texts had dominated literary studies since the 1920s.  At its most arrogant, it claimed, with pseudo-scientific authority, to be  an indisputable way of establishing literary quality and of reaching demonstrably valid critical judgments.

In order to justify these aims it tended to regard literature as some kind of autonomous activity with only peripheral connections to the world that literature so distinctively strives to interpret. And because the only literature that counted had to pass the tests which  practical criticism itself set up, everything else was scornfully dismissed as of no real interest. Here was the approach – obviously enough always odd to me – that literary theory, rather than interdisciplinary studies, displaced so effortlessly.  

I could take a fairly dispassionate view of the wider changes involved because by the time literary theory began its takeover bid, interdisciplinary studies were to me irresistible, inevitable perhaps.

They had brought meaningfully together the reading passions that had been natural to me  since childhood, been encouraged and to some extent systematized by the experimental mood at Sussex, and had settled some of the academic issues with which I was otherwise discontented. Regardless of whatever resulted from the battle taking place between practical criticism and literary theory, the interdisciplinary approach was not something I had any intention of giving up on. Nor did I need to.

My own tastes in literature were, and still are, what used to be called ‘high’.  This meant that I was generally happy with the writers that practical critics chose to fix as important and even felt at ease with the intensity of the type of reading they espoused. I did not, though, approve of the narrow range of authors and texts which practical criticism consciously promoted - the ‘canon’ as it came to be called – and the in-built assumption that there was no other acceptable way of writing about literature.  

That would have been impossible enough for someone like me whose historical inclinations led to the belief that literature is profoundly influenced by the political, social, and economic conditions of its age, but there was yet more to it. I was convinced that those influences are not the fairly simple historical connections that even the most rigorous practical critic was willing to acknowledge, but are actually capable of affecting every aspect of literature, its form, as well as content.  Rather than go on analysing in ever closer detail the nature of particular works of literature, however attractive the method itself could be,  I wanted to try to understand how and why, at particular moments in time, those works developed their very own qualities and character.

To my mind, the only way of doing this was to pursue a literary history that explored an unusually large range of authors and works from the critically despised to the critically admired, while at the same time examining a similarly wide range of influences, literary of course, but social, economic and political as well.  Only by doing so would it be possible to recreate the kind of literary and social context within which the overwhelming majority of writers (of whatever quality) actually live and work.  My approach to literary history has therefore always been consciously, and to my mind necessarily, empirical. In other words it begins and develops from a curiosity about the  nature of literature itself, what is actually there rather than trying to impose on literature any external view or theory of what it should be.   

That many of the new literary theorists regarded any mention of empiricism with distrust didn’t bother me one way of the other. Wasn’t I also a theorist, even if, as it increasingly felt, in a school of one?  After all, interdisciplinary studies had their own theoretical needs and problems. Even my historical empiricism, often criticized because it did not constitute a recognisable theory (or, rather, ideology ), did constitute in itself a perfectly valid theory (and, I suppose, its own ideology).

This was the reasoning behind the research to which I first committed myself as a undergraduate student. I was sometimes advised to move to a different university to do postgraduate research, but it was not at all clear exactly why this would be a good thing. In the mid-1960s most English literature departments were still dominated by practical critics who were barely interested in history at all, and I was already aware that the few exceptions to this rule would not have shared my particular take on interdisciplinary studies.

And anyway, there were good academic reasons for me to stay at Sussex. The instigators of interdisciplinary studies were still actively at work there, and recently arrived to join the academic staff was someone who was interested in the research topic I had proposed and willing to act as my supervisor.  The brand-new university library was a potential hindrance. Still striving to establish a basic collection to serve all subjects, it could in no way provide the unusually large range of literature I needed. But Brighton being famously within easy commuting distance of London settled that particular problem, and my postgraduate research was carried out largely, and for me ideally, in the  British Museum Reading Room and the London Library. 

When I did move on from Sussex it was to the University of Leicester where I taught for four years. The Leicester English department was entirely traditional in its attitudes, but not so the Victorian Studies Centre which was motivated, at a postgraduate level, by similar interdisciplinary principles as those being applied more widely at Sussex.  Appropriately enough, it was while I was involved in the Victorian Studies Centre at Leicester that I began to publish, in the form of books and editions, the research I had started at Sussex.   

That was clearly a new stage, a movement forward, allowing me to try to make my own contribution to interdisciplinary studies, especially the way they can be used to help understand the complex interactions between literature and its historical context. All of that was clearly rooted in the academic changes of the 1960s and 1970s. What I was less clear about at the time, though it means much more to me now, was the intensely personal nature of my work and the way it constitutes a regular definable pattern of interests and methods.  

Its true roots, deeper even than those of Sussex University’s interdisciplinary fervour, lay rather in the small South London public library where as a young child I began reading  books of English literature and history voraciously and indiscriminately.

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see also: My Books