Hardy in History: A Case-Study in the Sociology of Literature (1983)

  • Peter Widdowson


Most forms of ‘historical criticism’ — whether bourgeois or Marxist — have two related features in common: they are concerned with the original production of the text; and they tend to take for granted the primacy of the ‘primary material’, literature, as though this exists objectively and independently of the attention criticism pays to it. (We all construct our bibliographies with the texts sectionally privileged as ‘primary sources’.) In comparison to history, literary studies has been naive, or disingenuous, to a degree. It lacks what I want to call, on the analogy of historiography, a Critiography. Now, it may be argued that the history and theory of literary criticism is literary studies’ equivalent, but I do not mean merely the academic process of historicizing, demarcating and challenging different schools of criticism over time — necessary and hygenic as this is. I mean, first, the extrinsic study of the subject itself — its history, its institutions, its practices, its theoretical premises and its social relations (what is the place and function of the criticism and teaching of literature in the 1980s; what is its ‘politics’?). And second, I mean a consciousness of the constitution of the material which criticism takes as ‘primary’: literary texts — the ‘facts’, if I may for a moment appropri-ate the word, of literary studies. It is here that criticism — however ‘historical’ it may be — can and should learn a salutary lesson from historiography, which recognizes that its ‘facts’ — the documents, the primary sources, ‘the Past’ — are not permanent and palpable, but are constituted in the process of writing history; that they are discovered, selected, suppressed, interpreted, produced and reproduced by historians who are themselves historical and political subjects interpellated into certain subject positions in a particular historical conjuncture —‘the Present’. E. H. Carr’s still sharply corrective book What is History? is helpful here. He reminds us:


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© Peter Widdowson 1998

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  • Peter Widdowson

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