Jonathan Brody Kramnick, Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0 521 64127 6. Price: £37.50 ($59.95).Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0 8018 5969 5 (cloth), 0 8018 6284 1 (paper). Price: $39.95 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).[Record]

  • Jack Lynch

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  • Jack Lynch
    Rutgers University, Newark

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 …