Examining romanticism: English studies and the emergence of close reading, 1904-1930
Cathey Cevallos, Alejandro
This dissertation focuses on the relationship between literary studies and Romanticism during the years following the foundation of the Merton Chair of English Literature at Oxford, in 1904 up to 1930, with the rise of “Cambridge English,” looking at the way in which the Romantic period and the period’s main authors were handled as subjects of study. Most narratives of the discipline’s development have overlooked this period (1904-1930) as a moment of disciplinary stasis, a cold chronology ensconced between the hotter periods of development that anteceded and preceded it. Similarly, while most available historical narratives have focused on the extra-disciplinary events that shaped the study of literature from outside—national pride, anti-German sentiment, the Great War, moral policing, educational policy and secularisation, among others—this dissertation focuses on the discipline’s material history, as found in textbooks, syllabi, student calendars, examination papers, and other such pedagogic materials, the result of original research at the archives of Edinburgh University, Oxford, UCL, and Cambridge. Following Thomas Kuhn’s account of the structure of scientific revolutions, this dissertation explores the methodological shift that took place in English studies with the development of practical criticism, understanding it in terms of paradigm change. The thesis argues that Romanticism was inimical to the methodologies upon which the discipline relied, particularly philological, historical, and belletristic approaches, leading to the questioning of the viability of these models. Close reading, the thesis proposes, emerged as a viable methodology for the study of texts in the form of a technē in which students could be trained, shifting the pedagogical approach to English Studies along the way, and turning the text into the discipline’s principal object of study. In its encounters with Romanticism, the thesis proposes, lay the foundations for a turn towards the text as the main object of literary studies. The dissertation considers the development of Practical Criticism as the basis for a new paradigm in English Studies, a kind of criticism methodologically equipped to bypass the epistemological hurdles Romanticism had presented to earlier models.