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Liliana Sikorska, An Outline History of English Literature. 2nd rev. edn. Poznán: Wydawnictwo Poznánskie, 2002, 541. ISBN 83-7177-003-0

 

Reviewed by Richard Utz

Published 28.08.2004

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Histories of English literature have undergone much change since the eighteenth century. Before the institutionalization of English studies at the modern university, individuals brought together their lifetime knowledge to compile relatively idiosyncratic and surprisingly comprehensive texts. Bernhard ten Brink’s Geschichte der englischen Literatur (1877) is often credited with being the first history based on more narrowly academic principles. As the first professor of English philology world-wide (with a chair at the University of [occupied] Strassburg), he had learned from the more established disciplines of German studies, Romance studies, and Classical studies that the composition of a comprehensive history of one’s subject’s literature and language was an essential step towards establishing its position and relevance inside and outside the university. As a committed philologist, he ended up concentrating too much on those literary texts fascinating textual scholars, but his tone and style still reveals almost as much about the investigating subject as it does about his subject of investigation. The more scholars learned and collected about their subject matter, the more difficult it became for any one scholar to write a complete history of all English literature. Walter F. Schirmer’s bulging 1937 Geschichte der englischen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart is a representative example of this development, and it is not surprising that the revised editions of his history were taken on by an entire group of specialists and published in four separate volumes.

Around the time when the most recent edition of Schirmer’s history appeared in print (1983), postmodernism had launched its full-scale attack against all so-called grand narratives, including the single-author histories of English literature. Consequently, we have seen more and more polyphonic and multi-authored histories such as the almost 1,100-page long Cambridge History of Medieval Literature (ed. David Wallace, Cambridge UP, 2002), a volume that boasts 33 independent texts whose varying perspectives and terminologies attempt to discuss English literature from the Germanic invasions through the beginnings of Tudor England. In its conscious attempt at replacing the earlier grand recit with a diversity of petit recits, the Cambridge History endangers one of the great attractions the earlier histories held for beginning students of English: its readability as focused story and continuous narrative. Almost every chapter in the Cambridge History demands that readers readjust their horizons of expectation, come to terms with a different set of critical assumptions, and decipher the more or less obvious scholarly desires and ideologies. Thus, the volume implies a different kind of reader, not the undergraduate novice trying to gain an overview of English (medieval) literature or the graduate student preparing for a comprehensive examination, but rather the specialist who would consult perhaps one chapter at a time.

Liliana Sikorska’s Outline History belongs neither to the older monographic tradition nor among the postmodern revisionists of that tradition. Well aware of the powerful Lyotardian mood in the academy, she immediately admits to the “limited point of view” and the “subjectivity” of her text. Moreover, since her goal is an “outline history” of English literature for “an advanced student or […] future teacher” of English literature, language, and culture, she smartly implies that an encyclopedic approach to presenting literary history somehow immunizes her against potential accusations of producing just another infamous grand narrative.

Sikorska does make choices, of course, if only when defining what constitutes “English literature.” That definition, too, is geared toward her main audience, and thus her volume is populated mostly with writers of the insular “English” tradition. Beyond that, she includes those (still) canonical Scottish, Irish, and Welsh names any student or teacher of English literature would need to know about: Robert Burns, Walter Scott, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, etc. In addition, she brings in a good number of contemporary writers of diverse ethnic backgrounds and currently residing in England, if their contributions to the field of “literature in English” have been recognized in England and beyond. As an important criterion for assessing such a high degree of recognition, Sikorska uses the prestigious “Booker Prize,” which considers writers whose texts are published in English in any of the Commonwealth countries or countries in which English is first or at least one of the official languages. But these titles are exceptional cases, and otherwise texts from Australian, South African, or U.S. literature are excluded. Finally it is noteworthy, though hardly surprising in a history written by a Polish anglicist, that Sikorska pays attention to English writers of Polish origin: Jerzy Peterkiewicz (b. 1932), for example, whose The Knotted Cord (1953), Loot and Loyalty (1955), Isolation: A Novel in Five Acts (1959), and The Inner Circle (1966) were all published in England, would perhaps not receive a place in a one-volume literary history by English scholars in many other countries (p. 425).

There is another area in which Sikorska’s reveals her views on how literary history can – and perhaps should – be organized and presented: Within a roughly chronological sequence of literary periods (e.g., “Post-War Literature”), she subdivides every period according to a mélange of chronological and/or generic, sometimes political and/or ideological considerations (e.g., “Late Forties and Early Fifties Prose,” “The Novel of the Fifties,” “The Novel of the Sixties,” “Drama,” The Angry Young Men,” “The Theatre of the Absurd,” [the somewhat odd] “Other Dramatists,” Poetry,” “Post-Colonial Literature,” “Commonwealth Fiction”). While this offers a helpful general structure to her target audience, it may every now and then lead to the silencing of writers whose texts defy traditional genre boundaries or who have written one text in several different categories. This must be the reason, why Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) does not receive an entry anywhere. In Patagonia (1978), an autobiografictional travelogue situated in the extreme south of America, won the Hawthornden Prize and the E. M. Forster Award; The Viceroy of Ouidah is one of the few historical English narratives about West Africa’s ‘slave coast’ (now the People’s Republic of Benin) and was turned into a fascinating film (Cobra Verde) by director Werner Herzog; On the Black Hill (1980) is a border novel that has made its way into numerous school and college curricula all over Britain, and Andrew Grieve made it into an excellent film version supported by the British Film Institute; The Songlines (1987), a postmodern novel about the nomadic ontology of Australia’s aboriginals, has long become a cult book in Italy, France, Germany, and the United States; Utz, a palimpsestic novella about the psychopathology of art collecting in Socialist Prague (turned into a fascinating film by director George Sluizer), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; these longer texts, together with his collected essays, reviews, and interviews posthumously published in What Am I Doing Here (1989) and Anatomy of Restlessness (1996), make Chatwin one of the most original Anglophone literary talents in the final quarter of the twentieth century. His name is often mentioned together with V. S. Naip[a]ul and Michael Ondaatje, both of whom receive space in the volume.

However, this is the only obvious lacuna in the Outline History. Otherwise, it offers concise and clear information for its audience and deserves praise for its painstaking exactitude, the diligently compiled bibliography, and the comprehensive indexes of terms and names.

 

KEYWORDS: Literary History, English Literature, Grand Narrative
REVIEWED BY: Richard Utz
AFFILIATION: University of Northern Iowa
E-MAIL: utz@uni.edu

 


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