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This review is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

INESSENTIALS Murray Roston, Sixteenth-century English Literature (Macmillan) £12.00, £3.95 pb.
Bruce King, Seventeenth-century English Literature (Macmillan) £12.00, £3.95 pb.
A. Norman Jeffares, Anglo-Irish Literature (Macmillan) £14.00, £4.95 pb.
Harry Blamires, Twentieth-century English Literature (Macmillan) £12.00, £3.95 pb.

Once upon a time there were no histories of literature, and literature was not noticeably the worse for it. Sometime soon, when Marxists, structuralists and post-structuralists have prevailed in their belief that works of literature are on the whole symptoms of something else, the history of literature will (like the State) wither away. But until the Golden Age returns there are histories to write, and perhaps some purpose in writing them - for literatures, like nations, have their histories, which is to say that they have identities characterized by intelligible connections over and above the mere succession of events. Since it is only in this light that it makes sense to treat the study of literature as an educational discipline, justifying the salaries of professors as well as the efforts of students, the abolition of literary history will be attended by some inconveniences.

Meanwhile, any new history of literature is to be viewed as, in a certain sense (call it 'objective'), supporting the idea of literary education as it is presently conceived - for if there is money to be made out of it by publishers, the business must be good for a few years yet. The house of Macmillan knows a little about money, and has judged this a suitable moment to inaugurate a twelve-volume historical series. Four books have appeared so far: two are of literary interest, two are on the whole symptoms of something else. This something is to be found at the point ...


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