Hume, Robert D.
September 2005
Review of English Studies;Sep2005, Vol. 56 Issue 226, p632
Academic Journal
'Literary history' continues to be commonly practised even though it is widely regarded with scepticism or contempt. This article examines approaches and assesses the options open to scholars. 'Bottom up' is an exploded positivist delusion, but lacking widely accepted historiographical principles 'top down' is not an alternative. Practical problems in attempting to write literary history are (1) defining a practicable aim; (2) justifying the process of selection that must be imposed; (3) determining principles of construction; and (4) establishing the basis on which validity is claimed. What can a literary historian legitimately attempt to do? Documented contextual description and analysis is feasible. 'Explanation' of change is best attempted at the level of particular detail over relatively short spans of time. Only within the confines of a very restricted subject can a historian attempt to be comprehensive. Literary history is often far from tidy, rational, or explicable. To pretend that it is these things is to trivialize the past and to trivialize our subject.


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