New Publication: ‘Reloading the British Romantic Canon: The Historical Editing of Literary Texts’

An essay by Pamela Clemit, ‘Reloading the British Romantic Canon: The Historical Editing of Literary Texts’, has just been published in the Cambridge University Press volume, History in the Humanities and Social Sciences, edited by Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner (pp. 306-28). The essay analyzes the historical recovery of Romantic-era literary texts through scholarly editing, using the writings of the philosophical anarchist William Godwin as a case study.

Here is an extract from the opening:

The literary canon may appear to be timeless but is shaped by history. Until the last two decades of the twentieth century, the canon of British Romantic authors established by the Victorians looked fixed, though its boundaries were debated. It gave primacy to six poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats), the most significant modern adjustment being the replacement of Sir Walter Scott (a Victorian favourite) by the tradesman-class visionary Blake. Consensus about the canon was broken in the 1970s and 1980s by successive waves of structuralism, poststructuralism, Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, and other theoretical approaches. But it was not enough to read beyond the canon: its substance could be changed only by editorial recovery of neglected writings.

Marilyn Butler, the most eminent British Romantic scholar in recent decades, opened the canon to peripheral figures by placing them in their localized historical contexts. Her intervention kicked off a new historical turn in textual editing, which is still rotating. Editing, properly done, is a mode of historical thinking. The practice of editing as a form of historical enquiry may be exemplified by the scholarly rehabilitation of the polymathic intellectual William Godwin, a figure once regarded as not quite canonical, whose writings are undergoing comprehensive editorial recovery. Editing Godwin captures history in the making. It enables us to track the development of his two principal works—each of which went through two sets of revisions in the fast-moving 1790s—and to recover and contextualize a rich trove of unpublished letters, augmenting the canon of his writings.

Pamela Clemit’s full essay may be read, along with the rest of the volume, via Cambridge Core (subscription database). History in the Humanities and Social Sciences includes fifteen other essays, which encompass the relationship between history and various fields in the humanities (philosophy and literature) and the social sciences (law, international relations, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology). It is available in hardback, paperback, and eBook formats. Please encourage your library to buy it.