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Unit 2: What is literary history?






Image: from Giovanni Aldini, Essai Théorique et Expérimental sur le Galvanisme ... (Paris, 1804). 'Galvanism', a technique for re-animating animal and human corpses using electricity that was developed by Aldini's uncle Luigi Galvani, was one of several methods for imparting 'life' to dead bodies that form part of the scientific background to Frankenstein. Mary Shelley identified galvanism as one of the influences on the story in her Preface to the 1831 edition of the novel.

[Image credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)]

Introduction to Unit 2

As readers, we tend to feel that literature is in some way unbound by history: when we read Eliot, Richardson, or Shakespeare, for example, their works affect us in what can appear to be a direct and unmediated engagement in the present. But works of literature, and readers, are historically-situated products of particular times and places. How can we understand the situation of literature in history, while preserving some sense of its autonomy and its ability to inhabit constantly-shifting historical contexts?

These questions are posed in a particularly acute form by the core text for this unit: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which appeared in 1818 but is more familiar in the heavily-revised version of 1831. Marilyn Butler’s classic essay on Shelley’s novel suggests that the proper context of the 1818 version is the ‘vitalist debate’ of 1814-19 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, but also claims that the changes in the 1831 text resulted from ‘outside pressures which have little to do with aesthetics, and make it hard to say that it was [Shelley] who changed her mind.’

This unit presents a range of different ways of accounting for how those ‘outside pressures’ are registered in works of literature.

List of secondary readings on Frankenstein


Week 7: Narrative and History

Lecture slides

History is a narrative, but narrative forms also have a history - which is one of the crucial ways of understanding Frankenstein historically. Ian Watt’s classic study The Rise of the Novel (1959) relates the emergence of the English novel in the eighteenth century to intellectual and social changes attendant on enlightenment philosophy and the ‘rise of the middle class’. Marilyn Butler's essay, meanwhile, situates the original (1818) edition of Frankenstein in the context of the 'vitalist debate' at the Royal College of Surgeons and reflects on the changes that Shelley made to the 1831 edition of the novel, prompting us to consider the role of authors, readers, and a wider field of cultural commentary in literary history.


  • Ian Watt, 'Realism and the Novel Form', in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1959, 25pp.)
  • Marilyn Butler, 'The First Frankenstein and Radical Science', The Times Literary Supplement 9 April 1993 (3pp.)


Week 8: Historical Formalisms

Lecture slides

Under the heading of ‘historical formalisms’ we explore the ‘new historicism’, a movement in literary scholarship which rejected an exclusive focus on ‘the words on the page’ to attempt to account for the situation of literary texts in particular historical moments, while retaining their ability to signify in ways that their authors and readers might not have recognised – but which literary historians can. Ian Hacking’s essay ‘Making Up People’ challenges us to historicise our own categories and concepts, and to think about the work they do in constituting what we take to be ‘reality’.



  • Catherine Gallagher & Stephen Greenblatt, 'Counterhistory and the Anecdote', in Practicing New Historicism (2000, 28pp.)
  • Ian Hacking, 'Making Up People', in Historical Ontology (2004, 16pp.)

Suggested further readings - on new historicism:

  • Carolyn Porter, 'Are We Being Historical Yet?', South Atlantic Quarterly 87:4 (1988), 743-86 - influential early critique of new historicist writing
  • id., 'History and Literature: "After the New Historicism"', New Literary History 21:2 (1990), 253-72
  • John H. Zammito, 'Are We Being Theoretical Yet? The New Historicism, the New Philosophy of History, and "Practicing Historians"', Journal of Modern History 65:4 (1993), 783-814

- and more generally:

  • Marjorie Levinson, “What is New Formalism?”, PMLA 122 (2007, 12 pp.)
  • Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (2000)
  • Samuel Otter, “A Different Formalism” (review essay on Davis, Formalism, Experience, ...), Novel 43 (2010, 3 pp.)
  • David Alworth, “Form’s Function”, LA Review of Books (March 2015) - review essay on Levine, Forms
  • Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, “Form and Explanation”, Critical Inquiry 43 (2017, 20 pp.)
  • Claude Levi Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”, Journal of American Folklore 68 (1955, 17 pp.)


Week 9: Historical Materialisms

Lecture slides

Historical materialism - the philosophy of history developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in which the development of productive forces and relations is conceived as the driving force of history - was the basis for some of the most influential works of literary history during the twentieth century, and remains an important presence in contemporary literary scholarship. The Hungarian Communist Gyorgy Lukács's classic work The Historical Novel presents this novel form of prose narrative as a distinctive product of the upheavals that followed the French Revolution; and the Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams offers new categories in which to think about the processes of cultural change in history.


  • Gyorgy Lukács, 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', in The Historical Novel (1962, 44 pp.)
  • Raymond Williams, 'Dominant, Residual, and Emergent', in Marxism and Literature (1977, 7 pp.)

Suggested further readings:

  • Roy Bhaskar, 'Materialism', and William Shaw, 'Historical Materialism', in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (2001, 5pp, 6pp.)
  • Franco Moretti, 'The Dialectic of Fear', New Left Review 136 (1982), 67-85 - a more-or-less conventional historical-materialist reading of Frankenstein and Dracula


Week 10: Critique and Post-Critique

Lecture slides

Until recently, 'critique' denoted a dominant tendency among literary scholars to read works of literature as encodings of ideological and discursive formations which delimit the possibilities of thought and action in a given historical moment. Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique exemplifies and explains a recent reaction against this mode of reading. In place of the ‘suspicious’ readings of literature that 'critique' tended to produce, many literary scholars have followed Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s call for ‘reparative readings’ that seek to restore and add meaning to texts, rather than stripping it away to reveal a supposedly hidden ideological core.


  • Rita Felski, 'Introduction', in The Limits of Critique (2015, 14 pp.)
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 'Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is about You', in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2002, 29pp.)

Suggested further readings:

  • Elizabeth Anker and Rita Felski, "Introduction," in Critique and Post-Critique (2017)
  • Judith Butler, “What is Critique?” in David Ingram ed., The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy (2002)
  • Bruno Latour, 'Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern', Critical Inquiry 30:2 (2004), 225-248
  • Alain Badiou, “The Democratic Emblem” in Giorgio Agamben et al., Democracy in What State? (2009)
  • Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory”, Yale French Studies 63 (1982, 18 pp.)