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This review is taken from PN Review 91, Volume 19 Number 5, May - June 1993.

METROPOLITAN MYOPIA Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (Oxford University Press) £35, £10.95 pb

The centre cannot hold; and a good job, too. This, at least, is the doxa of our fin-de-siècle. The centre is seen as a concept which fuels the drive towards a monolithic uniformity and a denial of difference. But the effect of this decon-structive inversion, in which a previously privileged term is reduced to the ranks, is paradoxical: for to claim to be centripetal is to plunge into the thick of things: margins merge into a mainstream in which the central becomes eccentric, so that to uphold it is to relegate oneself to the margins, to become, in Dannie Abse's words, way out in the centre.

Today, John Bull is seen as a dull dog, and brutal into the bargain: you don't think these creatures who oppressed three-quarters of the globe could create English Literature? After all, aren't the phrases with which the above paragraph begins and ends by an Irishman and Welshman. respectively? And wasn't the invention of EngLit a covert operation by the Scots - or not so much covert as unnoticed? This is the bold re-reading of literary and cultural history that Robert Crawford proposes. It was the Scots - particularly the figures of Adam Smith and, above all, Hugh Blair, whose bestselling Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres was first published in 1783 - who invented English Literature as a subject. But it was an invention that partially consumed the original culture of its inventors. It was produced by, exemplified and reinforced British ...


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