Our Scholarly Future

(Or, SEL’s Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century)

Because of my recent experience with a second Studies in English Literature omnibus review, I decided to take a bird’s-eye view of the first two decades of the twenty-first century of eighteenth-century studies for the “Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Future of the Profession” panel at MLA 2020. I focused on “the future of the profession” from within the profession; that is, I looked inside to what we have been doing for the past twenty years, and I projected as if we were going ahead for twenty more. That, of course, is both recently and suddenly a big “if,” as others in this collection will address. What I found inside that sealed-in-print world, however, was academically (if not institutionally) cheering. And I am always for a bit of cheer. Cindy Sunshine they called me, when I were a lass (see below, note 1).

I reviewed the books and collections of Restoration and eighteenth-century studies for SEL in 2006 and 2018, first as an associate professor and later as full. It’s a daunting experience to have a box-o-books landing on your doorstep every week from one February to the next, particularly for a chronic self-over-estimator, but it is also like being Santa Claus’s favorite child. (Not that he has favorites, of course.) It rather surprised me that the experience reading the productions of 2017 seemed remarkably similar to reading the productions of 2005. I remembered reading some dire predictions about the future in some SEL reviews, particularly after the 2008 recession, but my recent batch of subjects seemed numerous and healthy. So I decided it might be interesting to look through all the SEL reviews of the two decades of our present century and take a few notes, just to see what I could see.

I did indeed find a common thread among the reviewers: a nearly unanimous celebration of the ways that eighteenth-century studies adopts and refines new critical directions; the best work, critic after critic admired, was “intricate,” “subtle,” “scrupulous,”  “granular.” I had generally found this true about eighteenth-century scholars—that we particularly favor a combination of historical context and close reading, of attention to the formal as well as the theoretical, the aesthetic as well as the political. The reviews’ most singled-out works consistently connected and animated past, present, and future.

Here’s a sampling:

In 2001, Jonathan Lamb commented on “a more intricate set of reactions between domesticity and the public sphere than had previously been considered possible” in gender studies; a “growing appreciation of the dialectical subtleties” in genre studies; and “an awareness of how the tide of ideas and practices flowing back and forth between the metropolis and its periphery blurs the starker outlines of national identity and imperial purpose” in postcolonial studies. “These are exciting developments, apt for a new century of literary criticism.”

The next year Barbara Benedict noted: “The essential eighteenth-century citizen that walks through this year’s Restoration and eighteenth-century studies is an adventurer in search of self.” She celebrated the “distrust of sweeping historical generalities in favor of the scrupulous examination of the particular contexts surrounding each source and authorial statement.”

In 2004, Steven Zwicker asked the Period Question: “It may seem ungrateful, but I want to begin this review by asking if there were any such age as ‘The Restoration and Eighteenth Century.’” But he, too, found the scholarship in our field was continuing, “amply and fruitfully,” to insure that “the conventions of literary history should always be under recovery, and reconfiguration.”

In 2006, I actually found “every sign of comfort with the idea of ‘the Restoration and the eighteenth century,’” that “we understand our own commitment to the ‘period,’” “that we know wot of we speak, so to speak.” My argument for “keeping a tenure line for the ‘long’ eighteenth century,” lay in the way we seem to “understand the period in terms of Wittgensteinian family resemblances rather than Oglethorpian grids.”

The next year, Deidre Lynch readdressed the periodization argument, finding that “in new ways some scholars are led by their inquiries to strain against, or snub, the periodization schemes that others have used without fuss. They are led to postulate alternative periods, subsumed within alternative histories.” Yet from a different angle she, too, found that “the best of this year’s scholarship in literary studies, far from dissolving literature into (cultural) history, exhibits a close-grained attention to form.”

In 2010, Jonathan Kramnick faced most directly the fallout from the economic meltdown of 2008–2009: “Consider the shrinking appeal we seem to have to the major university presses. The result: no books from Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Penn, or Yale; [. . .] The dropoff is staggering.” And indeed, where the “Books Received” lists for the first half of the first decade of the twenty-first century averaged 90–100 (Allen Reddick had a daunting 124 books to review, and Michael McKeon 110, although theirs included far more annuals and periodicals that we tend to get now), Jonathan had 81. Although I haven’t gone through every year of the SEL in this past decade (see below, note 2), there were a fair number in the 90s, and for my last review I did count the more or less healthy return of the major presses. And Jonathan did find a resilient intellectual energy: “I was happiest, I think, when I heard a certain wavering or crack in the smooth delivery of expected notes: the sound of discovery or zeal. Let’s hear more of this. We are lucky to work in this line of business and should make the most of it.”

Claude Rawson, on the other hand, had—perhaps not surprisingly—a dimmer view of this “dismal intellectual climate” in 2012. Still, Claude’s review was witty (“Professing literature is an easy living. All you need is an opinion (or ideology, or methodology) and a publisher” (see below, note 3). And he did find things to praise. (“This has been a surprisingly good year for editions, which are the single most useful activity in literary scholarship, and were once regarded as such.”) His apocalyptic vision was more than counterbalanced by George Haggerty’s enthusiasm five years later: “This year’s list of books is impressive in its range and inspiring in its depth. I have read books on readers, on diseases, on nuns, and on vermin.” He marked a “certain coming of age” in queer, postcolonial, and disability studies in that “they seemed to function as a given.” George concluded with the hope of giving “encouragement to young scholars, who should see from this review that, as much as has already been achieved, there is always room for more.” (I’ll add that George’s emphasis on younger scholars echoed the concerns and praxes uttered by Jonathan Kramnick and amplified by Jenny Davidson, who focused on the utility of the SEL omnibus review for graduate students writing dissertations and imagining first books.)

My 2018 review was a miniature period review of the interval between: “Twelve years ago the dominant topics were gender and empire; this year it’s print culture and linguistics, along with science and philosophy. [. . .] Perhaps purely coincidentally in this Æra 2017-2018, I noticed a great deal of interest in collaboration and community.” Then Jayne Lewis saw a different emphasis at the end of this decade: “[S]patialized thinking once seemed to typify the eighteenth-century worldview. But it’s all about time this year. We have new studies of time present (time as habit, time as sensation), time past (decline, nostalgia), and time future (speculative nationalism, the prospects for feminist criticism). Time even shapes how we now think about form, as we do, all the time.”

I want to offer a couple of examples that confirm this repeated confidence we have in our eighteenth centuries, from my most recent experiences reading manuscripts for journals. One was for Literature Compass. At the time of MLA 2020, all I knew was that it was by a younger scholar. I wrote in my report: “This is one of the best journal mss I’ve read in the last few years, and I enthusiastically recommend publication. The essay makes a deliberate end-run around our contemporary (and ossified) definitions of epic to recover what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers and critics thought about it, thereby widening our understandings of both genre and period (and ourselves, for that matter). Turns out, the eighteenth century was not a wasteland for epic; we simply haven’t been “read[ing] eighteenth-century epics as earlier audiences did.” This lovely essay turns out to have been written by Anna Foy, who introduced herself at the panel session.

The other was for ECTI, and it turns out to be by Beth Fowkes Tobin, who gave me permission to share these details. I wrote this in my reader’s report: “‘Drawing Insects’ is in one sense a celebratory defense of eighteenth-century science as not reducible to something ‘naively empiricist, as part of an imperialist project, [or] as engaged in commoditization of the natural world,’ as is too often projected ‘within environmental humanities, eco-feminist philosophy, and ecocritical studies.’ This essay is itself a conceptual model of thoughtful, historically based, and philosophically nuanced ecocritical studies. The premise of its argument is that the techniques of observing, drawing, and classifying the natural world invented and practiced by eighteenth-century natural historians were actually techniques to preserve and wonder at that world, rather than exploit and destroy it.” She argues that “because of their engagement with Linnaean systematics,” drawings by her case study, John Abbot (an English naturalist artist who specialized in North American birds and insects) “possess an aesthetic austerity that is akin to a kind of mindfulness that is capable of decentering the human subject.”

While I’m at it, I’m going to throw in a published bit from Jonathan Lamb at the turn of our century and then make my main point. In Preserving the Self in the South Seas 1680-1840 (2001), Lamb takes issue with the kind of reading of ship’s logs that characterizes them as inscribing “the imperatives of eighteenth-century discovery”: “‘shoot! classify! name! describe!’” “So much is taken for granted in these generalizations,” he points out.

It is as if no alarms or mistakes disturbed the collection of specimens, and no terrors smudged the cartographic grid. How easy it is to read the log of George Anson’s Centurion, perhaps the best known of the British navigations before Cook, and to assume that the laconic references to tempests, freezing rain, and broken equipment, and the daily list of names terminating in D.D. (discharged dead), are heroic reductions of dangers to the level of inconveniences, an impassive assertion of the majesty of a higher purpose.

The point for me is that eighteenth-century studies has pretty much always behaved like the ever-rising Bakhtinian (or J. Paul Hunterian) novel: cheerfully swallowing each new theoretical trend, but not simply disgorging it; masticating, perhaps, certainly digesting, incorporating, refining, refueling. Anyone who thinks the Enlightenment somehow produced the world of Donald Trump hasn’t been reading closely enough, declaiming (to go back to Barbara Benedict’s 2002 review) those “sweeping historical generalities” in lieu of our more favored “scrupulous examination of particular contexts.” As Jayne Lewis concludes: “The moral? We do have a future. [Our] fellow travelers teach us how we might best approach it, and at long last find ourselves at home.” Or as the Johnsonians would toast: “Esto Perpetua, Eighteenth Century.”

Note 1: These lines were written before the pandemic, the economic fallout, and the murder of George Floyd. But in revising this short piece for The Rambling, I took a bit of heart for the future in Danny O’Quinn’s words, from his 2015 review for SEL: “Whether implicitly or explicitly, our present conditions are the real subject of inquiry.” In real time, eighteenth-century scholars are, implicitly or explicitly, addressing the tumult, trauma, and—we hope, we work—the transformationof our times.

Note 2: Ah, but now I have. See the accompanying table.

Note 3: And a job, Claude!

Cynthia Wall is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (1998), The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century (2006), and Grammars of Approach: Landscape, Narrative, and the Linguistic Picturesque (2019), as well as an editor of Bunyan, Defoe, and Pope. She is not the “American journalist and novelist” Cynthia Wall (b. 1944), no matter what Google says. 

Leave a Reply

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top