These two books are in many ways strikingly similar. Both attempt a kind of archaeology of knowledge on large questions of literary history. Both are concerned with historicising concepts and categories long taken for granted. Both therefore work by defamiliarising what we have come to take as a given: the literary canon, the idea of literature itself. Both relate the changes in the idea of literature to intellectual labour, to print culture, and to gender. Both use history to explain the origin—and, by extension, the present state—of essential aspects of the critical profession. And both are therefore at least as concerned with the late twentieth century—what Kramnick calls 'the present crisis' (p. 237)—as they are with the eighteenth and early nineteenth. Together, they provide an intriguing reconsideration of the idea of literature from the middle of the eighteenth century through the first third of the nineteenth.
Kramnick's Making the English Canon is an ambitious book. Its concern is not so much with canon-formation per se—there is little discussion of what is in and what is out—as with the rise of the modes of reading applicable to a canon of great, but necessarily difficult, works. In the wake of the battle of the books, Kramnick argues, came two opposed but never entirely separable approaches to vernacular works, one belletristic and 'aesthetic'. the other scholarly and 'historicist'. The latter in particular, with its demand for specialised literary labour, contributed to the conception that certain older English works (Shakespeare and Spenser in particular) required a more disciplined reading than the gentlemanly and amateurish aesthetic of Addison or Shaftesbury was able to provide. This served to set off a body of privileged works from more popular but less dignified writings. The bulk of the book is given over to case studies of interpreters of the works of the English Renaissance, both well-known (including Thomas Warton, Samuel Johnson, and Richard Hurd) and obscure (William Dodd, William Huggins, William Kenrick). An intriguing 'Afterword' relates this history of the canon and its interpretation to the modern canon wars—in particular, what Kramnick calls 'the intellectual arrogation of English literature' (p. 242)—which he sees as a by-product of the wars between the two kinds of reading.
The chronological limits stated in the subtitle are slightly misleading; although there are a few references to the early decades of the century, the book is really concerned with the outburst of critical investigation between Dodd's Beauties of Shakespeare (1752) and Elizabeth Montagu's Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear (1769). Such boundaries are understandable, since the large topic threatens to get out of hand if not strenuously reined in. Unfortunately, though, some relevant material is arbitrarily excluded. Works from the early part of the eighteenth century (like Peter Whalley's Enquiry into the Learning of Shakespeare and John Hughes's groundbreaking six-volume edition of Spenser's Works) and others from the later part (Edward Capell's Notes and Various Readings to Shakespeare and Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry) would have provided some useful context. And Making the English Canon might have benefited from more attention to earlier English antiquarians—Cheke, Nowell, Camden—and their relationship to the historicists of the eighteenth century.
A more significant exclusion, though, is any extended consideration of Milton—who, even more than Shakespeare and Spenser, contributed to the idea of a 'classic' English literary canon. His own canonisation came quickly: Patrick Hume's annotations on Paradise Lost (1695), for instance, mark the first time an English text written after 1500 received the scholarly treatment previously reserved for the classics, and Alexander Cruden's Verbal Index to Paradise Lost (1741) was the first concordance of a modern English work. But perhaps it is unfair to fault a book of such wide scope for its omissions. Kramnick's study of the critical environment that shaped our notions of canonicity will be welcomed not only by those concerned with the eighteenth-century canon, but also by those interested in our own canon wars.
In The Work of Writing, Siskin is even more ambitious than Kramnick—perhaps audacious is the better word. His concern is not only the development of the canon of great works and the types of reading appropriate to it, but indeed literature itself and the idea of intellectual labour of any sort. Chronologically, Siskin picks up where Kramnick leaves off. As in Kramnick's case, the stated purview—1700 to 1830—is exaggerated. A few references to Astell, Pope, and Thomson do not change the fact that The Work of Writing is really about the 'long' Romantic era in Britain, from the 1770s through the 1820s. Over that period, Siskin traces the changes in the meaning of literature from 'anything written' to 'special kinds of deeply imaginative writing' (p. 6), and finds the source of these changes in the culture of print. As the author puts it, 'This book is about the changes—sudden and violent as well as slow and impalpable—that haunt the advent of new technologies... It argues that the proliferation of writing ... [changed] society's ways of knowing and of working' (pp. 1-2). The technologies of writing, he suggests, brought about new ways of dividing knowledge; the resulting concerns with disciplinarity and professionalism helped to constitute the category of 'Literature'.
As readers of his first book, The Historicity of Romantic Discourse, will recall, Siskin is a relentless historiciser: each time he brings up a term or idea and suggests a tempting generalisation about it, he self-consciously pauses, steps back, warns us not to be so hasty, and then forces us to reconsider that term or idea as the product of historical forces. Nothing is taken for granted. This constant defamiliarisation allows him to address 'a central paradox posed by the last decade of historicist work on Romanticism: how to write about Romanticism without being Romantic' (p. 14).
His investigations range widely over philosophical prose, the georgic, the lyric, the periodical, and the novel. Each chapter begins with the changes that occurred over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in one of these genres or modes, and relates those changes to his 'three central categories: disciplinarity, professionalism, and Literature' (p. 17). Nine chapters are arranged in three sections—'Disciplinarity: The Political Economy of Knowledge', 'Professionalism: The Poetics of Labor', 'Novelism: Literature in the History of Writing', and 'Gender: The Great Forgetting'. Whereas Kramnick's attention turns explicitly to the present only in his 'Afterword', Siskin never lets us forget that his nineteenth-century story has a twentieth-century moral: his meditations on the origins of academic disciplines offer valuable enlightenment in an age of would-be interdisciplinarians.
Siskin's strength is in presenting the big picture; his heart is not always in the little details. His readings of specific passages sometimes seem perfunctory, and he often latches onto the tiniest detail and spins from it a dozen pages of interpretation. He therefore often builds large structures on textual foundations not big enough to support them. But the structures themselves are impressive, obviously buttressed by considerable erudition and many years of thought. Siskin's knowledge of the literature of the period is remarkable not only in its breadth but in its depth, and he wears this learning lightly.
Neither of these books is well served by a brief review: both are wide-ranging and subtle, and leave themselves open to a thousand objections on both major and minor points. Certainly no reader will come away convinced by every assertion. But no one will come away unchanged, either; Kramnick and Siskin force their readers to reconsider some of the questions fundamental not only to the subject we study, but to the way we study it. These two works—dense, demanding, and often frustrating, but also thoughtful, clearly written, and learned—should be essential reading for anyone concerned with the origins and development of our own professional labour.