Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study by John Guillory - review by James Purdon

James Purdon

The Critic in the Classroom

Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study


University of Chicago Press 464pp £24

Unlike our colleagues in most other academic disciplines, those of us who study and teach English literature have never quite managed to agree on a single term that aligns what we do – our professional identity as teachers and researchers – with the materials we study. People who study the stars are astronomers. Economists investigate the economy. But what do you call someone who spends their working hours trying to reconstruct Milton’s understanding of classical poetics, or teaching students to appreciate the short stories of Katherine Mansfield? We know what it is that we study, but what is it, exactly, that we do?

The obvious answer, as John Guillory asserts in this magisterial survey of the development and state of the discipline, is criticism: ‘If literature is studied in the university, it is criticism that is professed.’ Yet this answer is complicated, he explains, by the fact that something called ‘criticism’ already existed – in the wild, so to speak – long before the teaching and study of vernacular writing became the focus of university departments. This was the criticism that had emerged in Enlightenment England, in the pages of literary and philosophical journals such as Addison and Steele’s Spectator and Johnson’s Rambler, and which ranged freely across the cultural, political, and economic life of the nation. By the end of the 19th century, when the study of English literature at last began to be formalised as an academic discipline, its practitioners faced a struggle to define the object and methods of the new discipline. Was ‘English’ to be associated with the quasi-scientific scholarly rigour of philology, precursor to what we now call ‘linguistics’, or with the aesthetic refinement of belles-lettres – to be, in other words, a form of training for students to appreciate literary excellence? Ought it to take over the functions of classics, teaching a new kind of rhetorical proficiency appropriate to a society in which writing was now a more necessary skill than oratory? Or was it to be a form of historical study, dedicated to the antiquarian recovery and interpretation of the literary culture of the past?

These questions, according to Guillory, began to be resolved only after the First World War, when – in the United States, at least – higher education in the humanities moved decisively away from the classical curriculum, investing students instead with a new form of cultural and social capital

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