Histories of English: The Critical Background

  • Carol Atherton


The attempt to write a disciplinary history of English literature is nothing new. Since the early 1980s, the rapid growth of academic literary theory has given many critics the impetus to ‘rewrite’ English as a subject, claiming to expose the social and political assumptions on which the study of literature is based. Chris Baldick has described such rewritings as central to the deconstruction of the ‘lazy’ ideologies on which attitudes to English are often based, ‘in particular the assumption that the existing institutions and values of society are natural and eternal rather than artificial and temporary’.1 However, while there is general agreement on the importance of unpicking the subject’s complex past, it is clear that this process has itself met with problems, not the least of which is the difficulty of writing a neutral history.


English Literature Literary Criticism Academic Life Professional Academic Reading Public 
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  1. 1.
    Chris Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848–1932 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 2.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The belief that the adult education movement sought to neutralise workingclass activism is discussed in Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 256–97.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (London: Hogarth Press, 1958).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See, for example, Brian Doyle, English and Englishness (London: Routledge, 1989); Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983); Peter Widdowson, Literature (London: Routledge, 1999).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Widdowson, Literature, pp. 36, 42.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (London, 1869: Cambridge University Press, 1932), p. 6.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Franklin Court, Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 6.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    By this time the new universities and university colleges included King’s and University Colleges in London, and the civic colleges of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Liverpool.Google Scholar
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    Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small, Politics and Value in English Studies: A Discipline in Crisis? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 161–4.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 2–3.Google Scholar
  11. 29.
    T. W. Heyck, The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England (London: Croom Helm, 1982).Google Scholar
  12. 31.
    See the Epilogue to Sheldon Rothblatt, The Revolution of the Dons: Cambridge and Society in Victorian England (London: Faber & Faber, 1968).Google Scholar
  13. 34.
    This process is dealt with in detail in Philippa Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838–1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  14. 37.
    Stefan Collini, English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 308.Google Scholar

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© Carol Atherton 2005

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  • Carol Atherton

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