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South Atlantic Modern Language Association

Reviewed Work(s): Is Literary History Possible? by David Perkins
Review by: David E. Latané
Source: South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Nov., 1992), pp. 109-111
Published by: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
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Book Reviews

O Is Literary History Possible? By David Perkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1992. x + 192 pp. $25.95.

The answer is no. But how could it be otherwise? We live in a world in

which objectivity, disinterestedness, determinant meaning, unified culture,
and inexpensive textbooks have all become impossible. David Perkins
explains the foreordained negative in this well-reasoned monograph, but
he also gives us some hints as to how our projects should proceed,
because it is equally self-evident that literary history is necessary. That
may be why we are seeing a resurgence of interest in the writing of it.
Perkins navigates between the poles of nineteenth-century narrative
and postmodern puttering. In the beginning literary historians accepted
"three fundamental assumptions": "that literary works are formed by
their historical context; that change in literature takes place developmen-
tally; and that this change is the unfolding of an idea, principle, or
suprapersonal entity" (1-2). Against this orderly view, postmodern liter-
ary historians believe that an era of literary history "cannot be grasped in
generalizations both because it is (said to be) incoherent and because the
would-be generalizers are committed to incoherence as a method of
presentation" (108). Is Literary History Possible? then, is in part a chronicle
of the developments that have led to the despairing (though often tragi-
cally joyful) position of postmodern adherents of mimetic incoherence.
Perkins begins by discussing the ways in which literary histories have
been structured, pointing to the traditional forms of narrative and ency-
clopedia, and analyzing the defects of each. He next discusses the foun-
dation stone of literary history, the classification of writers and their
works into groups, and concludes by examining the search for the "rea-
sons why literary works have whatever characteristics they do and why
literature developed as it did" (20-21).
The discussion of classifications takes due account both of their impor-
tance as maps to the cultural world and of the original naivety of their use.
More advanced literary historians regard classifications as necessary fictions,
though without a faith "that they correspond to historical realities" (67).

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110 Book Reviews

Perkins's method is empirical; he t

classification from the practice of a n
Matthiessen's American Renaissance t
of Classical Literature. He then devote
"Romantic" classification for English
been contested, in part because the
shalt read Blake, Wordsworth, Coler
shalt not read Maginn, Rogers, Hema
that is also so evidently an ex post fa
In an interesting conclusion to his
obviously distortive classification,
hermeneutic circle in which the in
history are adjusted time and time ag
Perhaps the most valuable sectio
approaches to explaining why literat
the immanent. Theories of immanen
ists' to Harold Bloom's, depend up
development-the context is restricte
high level of coherence is confidentl
immanent explanation-Bate's The Bu
emphasizing the formal clashes of
"bring phenomena into view that ha
(169). The problems are almost self-e
too narrow, and they value too high
or subject matter" (163).
Perkins's first example of contextual
Essay on the Original Genius of Hom
more recent books by Stephen Gr
Gubar, and Alan Liu are more prov
Gubar, contextualist literary histori
presses its author's mind and feeli
shaped by personal experiences" (
context is ultimately the totality
particular time. Problems arise as the
justify or evades the question of the
or she happens to have in hand. D
assumptions about authors' feeling
situation, a tendency Perkins notes
and minority literary histories. But t
rock of "quality": that is, the contex
even to describe the greater value of
Whore" (129).
During a discussion of Jauss and reception theory, Perkins articulates
the central problem that makes literary history impossible. Jauss's theory,

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South Atlantic Review 111

he argues, ultimately sacrifices the "real heterogen

altar of coherence: "Every theorist of literary his
attempt in the genre--ultimately shatters on
perceive a past age as relatively unified if we are t
we must perceive it as highly diverse if what we
plausibly" (27). Book historians (rather than litera
full weight of this problem-a recent check, for i
even the superb research library at the University
one or two percent of the books published in Eng
almost all are little read, even by specialists. The
expand and contract our "canons" and instigate
quarrels are but a small subset of the Great U
literary historians of Macedonia, where the lan
million--has a written literature only fifty years o
be able to read it all. Despite the current foregroun
problems of literary history, one could argue that
of literary history, its dubious narrative, its fasci
possible to read with any purpose at all.
In his concluding chapter, "The Functions of Lite
makes a different appeal. Citing Nietzsche's cri
aligns himself with the maligned historicists. He
history from "history" by the element of literary
pions the central effect literary history has on r
"seen as belonging to the past, and especially to
are informed, it becomes at once part of a world t
challenge of the "alien mentality" keeps us from
present" (183-85), and it gives us the opportunity
relation to the present that may be a catalyst for
Since Perkins concludes with Nietzsche, perha
also. The philosopher notes that "[g]ood write
common: they prefer to be understood rather th
not write for knowing and over-acute readers" (ap
All Too Human). The likely readers of Johns H
books may fall into the latter category, but David
and clear thought put him easily into the comp
writers. Consequently Is Literary History Possi
Ren6 Wellek's The Rise of Literary History (1941)
ard in its field.

David E. Latand, Virginia Commonwealth Universit


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