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This review is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

Cover of The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism
Tony RobertsWry Reading
Stefan Collini, The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism (Oxford) £25
‘Literary critics are always, by default, second-hand historians,’ Stefan Collini claims in his new book, The Nostalgic Imagination, and then goes on to illustrate this in forensic detail. His latest welcome examination of twentieth century British intellectual history is an amplification of the Ford Lectures delivered at Oxford in 2017. In these he argues that between T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood (1921) and Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution (1961), while academic history turned to specialisation, literary (and cultural) criticism took over some of its old territory in the national consciousness. Highly influential and generally unchallenged literary critics like T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, William Empson and Raymond Williams contributed to both literary history and general history, without the necessary credentials in the latter.

Collini first dismisses one of ‘the foundation myths’ of literary studies, which argued that during ‘The Age of Criticism’ these critics prioritised the text while denying the historical dimension of literature. He shows they were in fact concerned with a radical re-examination of history and ‘played a powerful part in diffusing an understanding of a contemporary cultural identity that was closely tied to an account of the national past’. The problem was that they were reacting to old historical assumptions (largely the ‘Whig’ narrative of political and moral progress): ‘To a surprising extent, some of the most radical critiques of “mass society” or “commercialism” in the middle decades of the twentieth century rested indirectly on pictures of the past drawn from such “authorities” as G.M. Trevelyan and J.L. and Barbara Hammond ...

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