Saturday 31 October 2020

The Eagleton Era

In his television programme on ‘Terry Eagleton at Oxford’, made at some point after Eagleton’s accession to the Thomas Warton Chair of English Literature in 1992, John Sutherland remarks of his subject that ‘the last thirty years will, I think, be known as his era’.  This is a provocative and suggestive statement, even if not quite on the scale of Michel Foucault announcing that the twentieth century would one day be described as ‘Deleuzian’.  But does it stack up?  Can we plausibly think of an ‘Eagleton era’ in English literary criticism and theory?

Many problems of definition at once pose themselves.  What is an ‘era’ in any field, particularly when a personal name is attached to the concept?  How might its beginning, range and end be specified?  What counts as relevant empirical evidence for such a speculative hypothesis?  How, in particular, does one detect (or construct) the point where, in Hegelian terms, quantity gives way to quality, so that Terry Eagleton is not just an increasingly influential critic and theorist among others but suddenly becomes – for John Sutherland at least – the name of an era in that cultural domain?

What might the relevant markers be here?  The spectacular intellectual and commercial success of Eagleton’s 1983 volume Literary Theory would be one telling moment, as, indirectly, might the death of Raymond Williams in 1988.  So too would be the Thomas Warton Chair itself, for there was always an intense cultural frisson, in both Left and traditionalist circles, about the ‘Marxist at Oxford’ idea.  Eagleton’s own phenomenal publishing record is a sine qua non of the whole process, and his emergence as general editor of the Blackwells ‘Re-Reading Literature’ series from 1985 onwards is also an important landmark.  I first came across Terry on radio, as he expounded Pierre Macherey on a Radio 4 broadcast in 1978, so media and conference appearances are important here too.  As also is the building of a cadre of combative postgraduates, as in the ‘Oxford English Limited’ group of 1980-92, many of whom later went into academic teaching themselves.

Whether Sutherland’s notion of an ‘Eagleton era’ finally holds up, I’m not yet sure.  But it is a powerful heuristic notion, which can prompt us towards some new sociology of literary-critical influence and celebrity.  Someone should surely explore this hypothesis at book length.



Friday 16 October 2020

The Oxford School of Fantasy

Oxford University is now vigorously promoting the notion of an ‘Oxford School of Fantasy’.  If you go to the webpage of its Faculty of English Language and Literature, you will find a section devoted to the genre of fantasy – hyper-popular at the moment after the television version of George Martin’s Game of Thrones.  We there learn that ‘Oxford is a natural home to fantasy literature with those who have worked or studied here having written so many famous and influential texts’; and a list of names follows which includes Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.

Well, yes, perhaps; but there is one rather blindingly obvious gap in that list, coming right between its first and second names.   For William Morris in the 1890s gave us a whole series of spectacular fantasy texts, from The Wood beyond the World onwards, which – quite apart from their own substantial merits - had a major impact on both Tolkien and Lewis in the early twentieth century.  Historians of the genre have regularly seen Morris as a, or perhaps even the, major figure in its invention.  Lin Carter terms Morris ‘the man who invented fantasy’ and describes The Wood beyond the World as ‘the first great fantasy novel ever written: the first of them all’.  Morris’s The Well at the World’s End, which his family affectionately nicknamed ‘The Interminable’, is certainly the major achievement in the genre before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

So the Oxford English Faculty should urgently update its webpages to include Morris’s fantasy works.  For Morris not only studied at Oxford, but, as I argued in William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895, the city remained central to his cultural and political imagination thereafter.