Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures: ‘History in English criticism, 1919-1961’

by guest contributor Joshua Bennett

A distinctive feature of the early years of the Cambridge English Tripos (examination system), in which close “practical criticism” of individual texts was balanced by the study of the “life, literature, and thought” surrounding them, was that the social and intellectual background to literature acquired an equivalent importance to that of literature itself. Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures, in common with his essay collections, Common Reading and Common Writing, have over the past several weeks richly demonstrated that the literary critics who were largely the products of that Tripos can themselves be read and historicized in that spirit. Collini, whose resistance to the disciplinary division between the study of literature and that of intellectual history has proved so fruitful over many years, has focused on six literary critics in his lecture series: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, Basil Willey, William Empson, and Raymond Williams. All, with the exception of Eliot, were educated at Cambridge; and all came to invest the enterprise of literary criticism with a particular kind of missionary importance in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Collini has been concerned to explore the intellectual and public dynamics of that mission, by focusing on the role of history in these critics’ thought and work. His argument has been twofold. First, he has emphasized that the practice of literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical in nature. The second, and more intellectual-historical, element of his case has consisted in the suggestion that literary critics offered a certain kind of “cultural history” to the British public sphere. By using literary and linguistic evidence in order to unlock the “whole way of life” of previous forms of English society, and to reach qualitative judgements about “the standard of living” in past and present, critics occupied territory vacated by professional historians at the time, while also contributing to wider debates about twentieth-century societal conditions.

Collini’s lectures did not attempt to offer a full history of the development of English as a discipline in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they raised larger questions for those interested in the history of the disciplines both of English and History in twentieth-century Britain, and what such histories can reveal about the wider social and cultural conditions in which they took shape. How should the findings from Collini’s penetrating microscope modify, or provide a framework for, our view of these larger organisms?

First, a question arises as to the relationship between the kind of historical criticism pursued by Collini’s largely Cantabrigian dramatis personae, and specific institutions and educational traditions. E. M. W. Tillyard’s mildly gossipy memoir of his involvement in the foundation of the Cambridge English Tripos, published in 1958 under the title of The Muse Unchained, recalls an intellectual environment of the 1910s and 1920s in which the study of literature was exciting because it was a way of opening up the world of ideas. The English Tripos, he held, offered a model of general humane education—superior to Classics, the previous such standard—through which the ideals of the past might nourish the present. There is a recognizable continuity between these aspirations, and the purposes of the cultural history afterwards pursued under the auspices of literary criticism by the subsequent takers of that Tripos whom Collini discussed—several of whom began their undergraduate studies as historians.

But how far did the English syllabuses of other universities, and the forces driving their creation and development, also encourage a turn towards cultural history, and how did they shape the kind of cultural history that was written? Tillyard’s account is notably disparaging of philological approaches to English studies, of the kind which acquired and preserved a considerably greater prominence in Oxford’s Honour School of “English Language and Literature”—a significant pairing—from 1896. Did this emphasis contribute to an absence of what might be called “cultural-historical” interest among Oxford’s literary scholars, or alternatively give it a particular shape? Widening the canvas beyond Oxbridge, it is surely also important to heed the striking fact that England was one of the last countries in Europe in which widespread university interest in the study of English literature took shape. If pressed to single out any one individual as having been responsible for the creation of the “modern” form of the study of English Literature in the United Kingdom—a hazardous exercise, certainly—one could do worse than to alight upon the Anglo-Scottish figure of Herbert Grierson. Grierson, who was born in Shetland in 1866 and died in 1960, was appointed to the newly-created Regius Chalmers Chair of English at Aberdeen in 1894, before moving to take up a similar position in Edinburgh in 1915. In his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, Grierson argued for the autonomy of the study of English literature from that of British history. As Cairns Craig has recently pointed out, however, an evaluative kind of “cultural history” is unmistakably woven into his writings on the poetry of John Donne—which for Grierson prefigured the psychological realism of the modern novel—and his successors. For Grierson, the cultural history of the modern world was structured by a conflict between religion, humanism, and science—evident in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth—to which literature itself offered, in the present day, a kind of antidote. Grierson’s conception of literature registered his own difficulties with the Free Church religion of his parents, as well, perhaps, as the abiding influence of the broad Scottish university curriculum—combining study of the classics, philosophy, psychology and rhetoric—which he had encountered as an undergraduate prior to the major reforms of Scottish higher education begun in 1889. Did the heroic generation of Cambridge-educated critics, then, create and disseminate a kind of history inconceivable without the English Tripos? Or did they offer more of a local instantiation of a wider “mind of Britain”? A general history of English studies in British universities, developing for example some of the themes discussed in William Whyte’s recent Redbrick, is certainly a desideratum.

Collini partly defined literary critics’ cultural-historical interests in contradistinction to a shadowy “Other”: professional historians, who were preoccupied not by culture but by archives, charters and pipe-rolls. As Collini pointed out, the word “culture”—and so the enterprise of “cultural history”—has admitted of several senses in different times and in the usage of different authors. The kind of cultural history which critics felt they could not find among professional historians, and which accordingly they themselves had to supply, centered on an understanding of lived experience in the past; and on identifying the roots—and so, perhaps, the correctives—to their present discontents. This raises a second interesting problem, the answer to which should be investigated rather than assumed: what exactly became of “cultural history” in these senses within the British historical profession between around 1920 and 1960?

Peter Burke and Peter Ghosh have alike argued that the growing preoccupation of academic history with political history in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries acted regrettably to constrict that universal application of historical method to all facets of human societies which the Enlightenment first outlined in terms of “conjectural history.” This thesis is true in its main outlines. But there were ways in which cultural history retained a presence in British academic history in the period of what Michael Bentley thinks of as historiographical “modernism,” prior to the transformative interventions of Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and afterwards. In the field of religious history, for example, Christopher Dawson – while holding the title of “Lecturer in the History of Culture” at University College, Exeter—published a collection of essays in 1933 entitled Enquiries into religion and culture. English study of socioeconomic history in the interwar and postwar years also often extended to, or existed in tandem with, interest in what can only be described as “culture.” Few episodes might appear as far removed from cultural history as the “storm over the gentry,” for example—a debate over the social origins of the English Civil War that was played out chiefly in the pages of the Economic History Review in the 1940s and 1950s. But the first book of one of the main participants in that controversy, Lawrence Stone, was actually a study entitled Sculpture in Britain: the middle ages, published in 1955 in the Pelican History of Art series. Although Stone came to regard it as a diversion from his main interests, its depictions of a flourishing artistic culture in late-medieval Britain, halted by the Reformation, may still be read as a kind of cultural-historical counterpart to his better-known arguments for the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of social upheaval. If it is true that literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical, perhaps it is also true that few kinds of history have been found to be wholly separable from cultural history, broadly defined.

Joshua Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Christ Church, Oxford.

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