Consider this. For much of the past century, some 70 years or so, the historical self-understanding of professional literary studies in the Anglo-American zone has been radically confused. Intellectual genealogies have been garbled; precious working resources have been set aside; priorities have been misjudged and alignments misconstrued. An entire historical situation has been wrongly evaluated by most of the left in the field. So argues Joseph North, in a book whose stolen title is itself a sign of iconoclastic intent: Literary Criticism was—is—the title of ‘a short history’ published by two leading exponents of the New Criticism just 40 years ago.footnote1 The difference, as the subtitle announces, is that this new one is ‘political’, and the account it offers is correspondingly ‘lean’—or even skeletal, viewed by the lights of conventional intellectual history. But this is avowedly ‘strategic history’, concerned to elucidate the ‘main lines of force’ in its theatre of operations, which is the ‘terrain of sensibility’. Its aim is to give ‘a rapid, synoptic overview of the basic paradigms that have governed the academic criticism of literature in much of the English-speaking world for the last century or so’, with a view to radical reconstruction.footnote2

The figures in this literary-political landscape account for some of the most influential work in Anglo-American literary studies across three generations and nearly one hundred years, from I. A. Richards and John Crowe Ransom, Fredric Jameson and Isobel Armstrong, to Eve Sedgwick and Franco Moretti. However, this is not the place to turn for rounded discussions of individual bodies of writing, even in miniature. North’s characters are ‘convenient emblems for the larger paradigms that are [the] real object of analysis’—a formulation that may provoke as many as it disarms. In these remarks I follow suit, noting the movements of these emblematic individuals in North’s historical scheme without entering into subsidiary discussions of their work and his representation of it, except in one case where the basic premises of his argumentation appear to be at stake.

North identifies two formations of discourse and a three-part sequence that began in the 1920s and continues today. The formations are his paradigms, ‘scholarship’ and ‘criticism’. The first of these usages is well grounded historically but nevertheless needs to be kept clear of misleading associations with generic ideas of specialized learning. The goal of ‘scholarly’ activity has been new knowledge; specifically, this is ‘literary study as the production of knowledge about culture’, in a line that extends from the philologist George Lyman Kittredge and Harvard circa 1910 to the New Historicism of the 1980s and its successor trends.footnote3 ‘Criticism’, in contrast, is an interventionist practice; its aim is the cultivation of sensibility, to the end of making a difference in culture, opening up ‘deeper modes of being’ than those spontaneously favoured by the prevailing social order. One emblematic figure would be F. R. Leavis (Lionel Trilling, though scarcely present in North’s history, would be another). Internally variegated though these paradigms have been and are, the fundamental strategic issue in literary studies is the opposition between them, and it is the changeable state of that relation that has differentiated the three periods in the life of the discipline since the First World War.

In the first period, which for convenience can be dated 1914–45, the dominant mode in academic literary study was philology, it in turn taking its colouring from prestigious established work in ancient languages. Advocates of modern vernacular study were for the most part obliged to justify their proposals in the terms of those paragons of (idealized) academic rigour. But these were crisis-ridden decades for capitalism internationally, in which favouring local conditions could lend resonance to the claims of a contrasting emergent mode, culturally engaged and temperamentally ‘scientific’ in a sense far removed from the routines of philological positivism. The 1920s and 30s saw the birth of criticism as a disciplinary form. In the decades of the long post-war boom, then, a period that included a significant expansion of university education, criticism achieved institutional legitimacy and literary studies became an informal condominium. Not without friction and occasional skirmishing, scholars and critics now coexisted and in some cases even entertained thoughts of hybrid forms. By the end of the 1970s, however, this Keynesian order was failing. Neoliberalism claimed its first domestic political victories in Washington and London, announcing the rise of a new hegemony that authorized the marketization of social relations in every sphere, not sparing the presumptive autonomy of the academy. The 1980s are commonly remembered as the decade of Theory, in which native strongholds were besieged and sometimes overrun by the devotees of new concepts and methods, very often French in origin—Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu were the figures in the triptych—and widely hailed as the sharp edge of a newly ‘political’ academic practice. But the great change of the time was altogether different in character and effect. The new ascendant paradigm was a multiform ‘historicist/contextualist’ practice that reasserted the primacy of ‘literary studies as the production of knowledge about culture’, at the same time revoking the characteristic aesthetic claims that had energized the mission of literary studies as criticism. In the end, even the core practice of ‘close reading’ would be challenged. For the first time since the 1920s or even longer ago, the discipline was in effect a modal monoculture. The scholars had won.footnote4

North’s staging of this historical sequence is not—cannot be—straightforward. His settings are sometimes English, sometimes American; his ‘Anglo-American’ generalizations tend to tilt towards the western shore of the Atlantic, when they do not simply begin and end there, as increasingly they do, over time. However, one setting has a particular salience, as have two of its local spirits whose perceived agency is more than simply ‘emblematic’. Cambridge is there in its familiar aspect as the birthplace of the so-called Critical Revolution, and I. A. Richards is there in his rather less well remembered role as its intellectually decisive innovator.footnote5 Richards is at the moral heart of North’s argument: for his rejection of the Kantian notion of the aesthetic as a domain of disinterested, self-sufficient objects, and counterpart insistence on the continuity of aesthetic and other human experience; as the one who therefore put reading and its contexts at the centre of interest, devising Practical Criticism as a diagnostics and therapeutics of reading that was to be generalized as the central procedure of literary study. Indeed, his importance is both historic and potential, North maintains. Richards’s strategic departure, a kind of ‘applied psychology’ oriented to the ‘value of the arts’, was forgotten, leaving the New Criticism’s Kantian precepts and the Leavisian fixation on canonicity to be perceived as the necessary substance of aesthetic reason as such—which would then be rejected as a matter of course, on just those grounds. It remains, however, as an inspiration for a new critical turn.

The second spirit, a familiar presence here made strange, is Raymond Williams, whom North casts as the pioneer of the new paradigm, the refashioning of literary study as the pursuit of cultural knowledge on strictly historicist-contextualist terms, and in principled diremption from the ideology of the aesthetic. Williams insisted on the reality of the ‘indissoluble historical social whole’: this was the great theme of his Marxism and Literature (1977), and its corollary was his refusal of the aesthetic as an illegitimate, idealizing abstraction from that process. On one occasion a little later, responding to his nlr interviewers in Politics and Letters, Williams allowed that somewhere in the historical field of writing there might be discoverable differences and continuities that might legitimately be accepted as ‘aesthetic’, but this was a moment without consequences, and unqualified rejection became the standard advanced position. In a further, ‘local’ move, Williams came to read Richards’s practical criticism retrospectively, through F. R. Leavis’s hyperbolic ‘scene of judgement’, and thus misread it, concluding that ‘criticism’ too must be rejected outright. In this way, he reconstituted ‘literary study as cultural analysis’: history, theory, sociology, but not criticism. In the common account, which is shared on the right and the left, these arguments were vanguard expressions of a progressive movement culminating in ‘a local victory over the elitisms of mid-century criticism’. But North maintains that the truth is the opposite:

The turn to the current paradigm in the late 1970s and early 1980s was symptomatic of the wider retreat of the left in the neoliberal period and was thus a small part of the more general victory of the right.footnote6