Studies in Literature and Culture
How It Was, How It Is: Literary Histories across the Decades
← 212 | 213 →Wojciech Nowicki
The paper examines the histories of English/British literature published over the last fifty years or so. Because the size of the material under inspection is forbiddingly vast and thus hardly manageable, we propose to examine only changes recorded in the paratexts of the various histories, leaving the texts themselves to future investigators.1
Three words have notably, and rather obviously, defined the scope and purpose of contemporary literary histories: “English” (less often “British”), “History” and “Literature.”
Within just a few decades the meaning of “English” has changed from that denoting “of England” to that meaning “in the English language.” The monumental Oxford History of English Literature, whose volumes continued to be published from World War II to almost the end of the last millennium, concentrated prevalently on English writers (with a glance at Scotland, though never Ireland), and so did David Daiches’s A Critical History of English Literature (1960). This situation began to change in the 1970s and 1980s when first The Sphere History of Literature in the English Language made its way to the bookshops, with two volumes about American literature, followed by the Longman Literature in English Series. The latter has now been taken over by Routledge and houses the literatures of America, India, Africa, the Caribbean as well as criticism and context, thus testifying to the changed idea of what “English” and even of what “literature” mean. Titular declarations can sometimes ← 213 | 214 →be tricky and will need annotations, as in John Peck and...
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