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The Nostalgic Imagination

History in English Criticism

The Ford Lectures 2017


Stefan Collini


Oxford: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. x+246 p. ISBN 978-0198800170. £25


Reviewed by Guy Ortolano

New York University



One indication of the close relationship between historical and literary studies is the predilection of practitioners of both for writing histories of literary studies. This tradition includes valuable contributions from, among others, Chris Baldick, Terry Eagleton, John Guillory, and Chris Hilliard. A particularly distinguished instalment remains Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature : An Institutional History (1987). Graff’s account of literary studies in the United States rejects the Whiggish scheme in which long-dead, half-read forebears are steadily displaced by increasingly familiar approaches and priorities. Graff’s anti-Whiggish approach replaces that sequential narrative with a series of oppositions: classicists versus moderns, researchers versus generalists, academics versus journalists.

A central dynamic, running through several of these oppositions, pits ‘scholars’ (who, broadly speaking, tend to approach literature through the world of which it was a part) against ‘critics’ (who, broadly speaking, tend to isolate literature from the world of which it was a part). The key moment in the long history of this tension – the moment when it did not simply inform the argument, but when it was the argument – fell between 1915 and 1965. Graff is too fine a scholar to depict this age as having set criticism ‘against’ history, but he does show how educational theorists and literary critics found agreement that ‘great literary works are independent of history’, and therefore that literary criticism should strive to ‘rescue tradition from the jaws of history’ [Graff : 177, 171].

Stefan Collini’s newest book, The Nostalgic Imagination, interrogates this purported opposition between history and literary criticism. His focus is not the ‘New Criticism’ of Graff’s U.S. academy, but rather its English relation in what is often referred to as ‘Practical Criticism’. Both movements took as their point of departure what Frank Lentricchia called the New Criticism’s ‘denial of history’, echoing the provocation of Practical Criticism’s founder, I.A. Richards, that he ‘didn’t think History ought to have happened’ [12]. For a scholar of Collini’s temperament, such forthright proclamations offer a target-rich environment. The Nostalgic Imagination reveals the surprising ways that even the most seemingly ahistorical works from this age of criticism not only depended upon conceptions of history, but also influentially conveyed those conceptions to a wider public.

The intellectual space for this unlikely happening was created by a pair of developments that Collini maps at the outset. First, academic historians more or less abandoned the field of popular exposition, as researchers beholden to Rankean virtues prioritised the production of specialized political and diplomatic histories instead. Second, appreciative literary histories suffered a sudden fall from grace, as the continuities they celebrated with Romantic and Victorian forebears became replaced by a sense of radical estrangement from England’s recent past. Roughly between T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood (1920) and Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution (1961), Collini argues, literary criticism came to shape historical understanding by advancing particular – and particularly influential – conceptions of English history.

This opening launches the exquisite series of critical-historical studies that comprise this tour de force. Born of Collini’s Ford Lectures at Oxford in 2017, most chapters focus on the giants from the heyday of English criticism. There are sustained studies of T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, and Raymond Williams, alongside considerations of Basil Willey, L.C. Knights, Q.D. Leavis, and Richard Hoggart. It is easy to imagine each performance as a masterpiece of the genre, wry and witty even when most serious. But the prospective reader should know that the resulting book features the Collini less of English Pasts (1999) than Absent Minds (2006) – less ‘With Friends Like These’ or ‘Against Prodspeak’, more ‘Chapter 2: A Matter of Definition’. In other words, these closely argued chapters are often heavy going. For specialists, though, each chapter repays the concentration it demands, beginning with the foundational consideration of Eliot.

Collini begins by considering the origins and fortunes of Eliot’s famous phrase, the ‘dissociation of sensibility’. During the seventeenth century, Eliot wrote in 1921, something ‘happened to the mind of England’ [38]. ‘[T]he structure of Eliot’s claim evidently involves movement from a kind of wholeness to a kind of fragmentation’, Collini writes. ‘[W]hat had been fused in a unity was thereafter sundered into separate parts and not only in poetry’ [39]. But as Collini stresses, Eliot’s statement stubbornly resists such tidy explication: it was less an analysis than a gesture, though – and herein lies the puzzle – a sensationally impactful one. By 1925, just a year after its reprinting in Homage to John Dryden, Edwin Muir could remark: ‘That this analysis is accepted as a truism by intelligent people today is due chiefly to Mr Eliot’ [39]. Eliot’s influence was indeed extraordinary. ‘[T]hose styles of literary criticism that claimed to take their inspiration from Eliot’, Collini notes, ‘became the dominant fashions in the study of literature in British and American universities between the 1930s and 1960s’ [27]. That those ‘fashions’ were purportedly ahistorical is perplexing, not least in light of their founding debts to Eliot’s reading of England’s seventeenth century.

Yet the subsequent chapters do more than trace Eliot’s ‘influence’ upon later criticism. Take the case of Leavis. Eliot, to be sure, mattered to Leavis. Not only his poetry, which Leavis championed in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), but also his sense of history. For Leavis, as for Eliot, the seventeenth century had been decisive. Leavis cited the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in Scrutiny in 1935, in an essay reprinted the following year in Revaluation. But it is precisely because of these well-known debts to Eliot, including to his ideas about history, that Collini’s readings here are so striking. When he unearths the sources that informed Leavis’s Ph.D. thesis of 1924, Collini turns up the likes not of Eliot – whose ‘dissociation of sensibility’, the next year, Muir could already proclaim a truism – but rather William John Courthope, Alexandre Beljame, Leslie Stephen, and G.M. Trevelyan. What follows is a dazzling analysis of Leavis’s engagement with (or, at least, citation of) historiography over time, alert to the precise moments when the seventeenth century, the Industrial Revolution, or the Victorians began to figure in Leavis’s thought. These readings show that purported entity, ‘Leavis’s thought’, to have been historical in another sense: developing over time, in response to particular arguments and developments, rather than existing as a static ‘thing’ for the historian to invoke. A later chapter displays similar nuance in revisiting Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy: a 1957 publication, which achieved iconic standing during the 1960s, but which, Collini shows, is best understood as a product of the ten years after 1945.

So while this is a study of, as the subtitle puts it, ‘History in English Criticism’, it is more precisely about the various ways that ideas about history, sometimes explicitly but often implicitly, informed, structured, and emanated from English literary criticism between roughly 1920 and 1960 (an admittedly less efficient formulation). To this end, given its sheer degree of difficulty, the chapter on Empson stands out. Consider the task confronting the reader of The Structure of Complex Words (1951). ‘One way to describe its structure’, Collini writes, ‘would be to say that an outer ring of barbed wire surrounds an inner ring of ditches and ha-has, at the heart of which there is a labyrinth’ [116]. Yet our author emerges triumphant, having revealed the historical assumptions that structured even this most unhistorical of arguments. After a chapter on Hoggart, Q.D. Leavis, and the notion of the ‘reading public’, readers next encounter a bracing dismantling of Williams’s Culture and Society (1958). If Empson refrained from invoking history, requiring Collini to excavate its work, Williams produced an influential history, requiring Collini to put it in its place. I confess to finding satisfaction in the critique, though an unnerving question lingers: could anyone withstand such scrutiny? Surely not the ‘figures of the second rank’, as Collini calls them, who populate Chapter 3 [77]. Here, the works of Basil Willey and L.C. Knights attest to the ways that Eliot’s ‘throwaway remarks’ on seventeenth-century poetry improbably became ‘transmuted into something altogether more conventional, but perhaps also more usable’ [125, 87-8]. Eliot’s initially revisionist literary history had, by the 1930s, come to function along the lines of a Kuhnian paradigm: that is, as the interpretive framework that, often unreflectively (but thus all the more pervasively), served to organize a generation of scholarship and teaching.         

As was true in Kuhn’s account, Collini’s explanations hew closely to his subjects’ work. The book opens with an intriguing epigraph: ‘The historian of literature’, Eliot wrote in 1919, ‘must count with as shifting and as massive forces as the historian of politics’. Collini likes the line, returning to it several times, but it must be said that, for the most part, those ‘massive forces’ remain obscure here. Chapter 7 makes a brave stab at identifying ‘general or structural rather than merely individual explanations’ for the diffusion of this more-than-literary history, considering its dissemination through such vectors as adult education and the Pelican Guide to English Literature [185]. But by 1963, Collini remarks, we enter ‘a changed world beyond my chosen period’, which invites the question of what had changed and why [201]. From roughly 1920 to 1960, this book shows, a broadly declinist view of history structured English criticism. This ‘nostalgic’ imagination was never universal (see, for instance, Empson), but it did inform the work of, among others, Eliot, Hoggart, Williams, and the Leavises. As historians withdrew from public roles, this paradigm extended beyond literary studies, informing historical schemes and sensibilities in the public culture generally. What ‘massive forces’ abetted this convergence between criticism and declinism, and then drove its shifting fortunes? Or, to put the question more leadingly: Why did a declinist history emerge after the Great War, retain its purchase through the slump and total war, only to at last recede in the early 1960s? By gesturing towards social and political contexts, I am not denying that ideas warrant study in their own right, or suggesting that intellectual developments are not at times precisely that. But the intellectual historian, like all historians, is constantly in search of the contexts that best explain the development at hand. That search might lead others to places where Collini, through a combination of temperament and conviction, does not go: outward from these critics and their texts, and into the society and culture into which they somehow fit.

Appropriately for a volume bookended by references to Leslie Stephen’s Ford Lectures, Collini devotes part of his conclusion to addressing readers yet unborn. Mindful of likely criticisms, about his subjects, sympathies, and scope, Collini offers a defence of his signature critical-historical mode. ‘Making sense of our history, personal or collective, is’, he writes in the closing paragraph, ‘a constant struggle to find a way to master multifariousness without denying or violating it’ [210]. A fitting characterization, and not only of these lectures. For more than four decades, no historian has more powerfully – or more winningly – waged that struggle. In That Noble Science of Politics (1983), Donald Winch and John Burrow saluted their co-author as ‘the team’s captain and its leading scorer’ [ix]. To adjust the national idiom slightly: a half-century from now, as derisive boos rain down upon what will no doubt appear our benighted age of intellectual history, is there any question whom we, desperate for a win, would want to take the mound?



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