Griffin, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 2 - The Fate of Our Field

Robert J. Griffin, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 2 - The Fate of Our Field

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Date: Thu, 16 Jan 1997 10:24:34 +0200 (IST)
From: "Robert J. Griffin" (
To: North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR-L@WVNVM.WVNET.EDU)
Subject: Re: Surveying the Survey

Alan Liu has gone a long way in explaining why there is no way back: the "long" approach is being driven by intellectual processes that have their own compelling logic and that produce kinds of knowledge that to many people at the moment make sense. It is not that the English Department will become an adjunct of the History Department, as Avery Gaskins cautions, but that the English Department must respond to a situation in which methodological issues have themselves broken down the intellectual, if not the departmental, barriers between the disciplines. The fact that this intellectual development is occurring at a time when there are fewer jobs is a contingency--one could argue that it began in the 1960s when there were plenty of jobs. But if we want to give our students the best possible chance we need to understand these processes. It is not simply that, as Alan notes, fewer dissertations are being written on single authors, it is also the case that publishers are reluctant to publish single author monographs, and the reason is because they don't sell--which means, *we* don't buy them. Apparently there are saturation levels beyond which we will not be able to sustain highly specialized production, and that certainly relates directly to the job market as well. If we advertise for a "Miltonist," what we are looking for is not someone who analyzes Milton's aesthetic qualities *only*; we are looking for someone who can do that, but who also understands the 17th Century and who can relate it to students in terms of what Foucault called "a history of the present." I say "we," but of course I mean that's what I would be looking for and what I would argue for in committee.

I want to take up Avery's concern about aesthetic value and suggest why it can no longer be the exclusive basis of critical investigation. When I read Elizabeth Inchbald's novel *A Simple Story* (1791), I was full of admiration and thought to myself, "this is a masterpiece." I was gratified when I read Terry Castle on Inchbald and found she used the same word. Now it is very clear to me that without feminism, as both a social-political and a scholary movement, I would have never come to read the book in the first place, perhaps not even have had the tools to appreciate it. I would have been prevented by a whole discourse of "aesthetic" values opposed to Inchbald, which succeeded in keeping her out of the canon for a long time, and which appears clearly not to have been based on purely aesthetic criteria. Similarly, I could be completely wrong about Inchbald--perhaps I am biased by social values.

The point, of course, made frequently, is that criticism can no longer simply avoid investigating the historical conditions of such judgments. And when that becomes the task, the whole scale shifts to longer-term processes. In terms of the study of a national literature broken up into periods, with "Romanticism" being really a generation and a half, this seems to me beneficial, not something to be mourned. One of the things I argued in *Wordsworth's Pope* was that the 18th Century was an essential context for early 19th-Century writers, but that the disciplinary structures of periodization in place today mean that students are practically disabled from seeing that dimension of what they study. In terms of Alan's analysis of what kinds of knowledge other fields are producing, and his challenge to Romanticists to think in those terms, surely this can't be irrelevant.

Bob Griffin
Tel Aviv University