Jesse Rosenthal: Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Young Girl Reading, 1868

by Jesse Rosenthal

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

What do we write about? What do we produce? Literary criticism has done pretty well for itself, so far, without having particularly precise answers to these questions. In light of the methodological tussles that have occasioned this symposium, though, I would like to take a (possibly hubristic) stab at an answer. What we write about, and what we produce, are two parts of the larger activity of the discipline: the maintenance of tradition. We are tasked with selecting and interpreting those works of the past which seem to explain the present. We produce, in other words, the past which seems to produce us. In so doing we—and here I mean Victorianists specifically—actually implicitly reiterate the most privileged story of our field’s tradition: development through the recognition of the self in the past.

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Suppose I tell you that I have a Victorian novel for you to read. I have not yet told you its author, or what it’s about. But if you have some familiarity with the field, with the meanings attached to the “Victorian novel,” then you likely know quite a bit about it. It will be long—probably five hundred pages or more in a modern Penguin edition. It will not offer much in the way of sex scenes. Its hero will probably be young, and not yet set in life. There will be some maturation, most likely some carriages or railroad, a career for a hero or a marriage for a heroine, and a polite degree of anxiety about industrialization and commodity culture. But here’s something else you will probably know: the novel that I’m going to give you will not be particularly difficult to read. It may take you a while—but it will seem more familiar, more like a novel than the work of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century (Austen, as always, conspicuously excepted); and it will require a good deal less aesthetic sophistication and effort against the grain than a modernist novel. When we talk about the “Victorian novel,” one of the principal things we are referring to is a certain sweet spot in relation the post-World-War-II reader: modern enough to be recognizable, not so modern as to be obscure. And for this reason it does not need to be taught to competent contemporary readers—at least not at the level of basic textual comprehension. More precisely, we can say that Victorian novels are those novels that do not need to be mediated by historians or interpreters. They might benefit from such mediation, as those who have taught them know, but that is only because students are only too eager to find themselves in them. Teachers and critics have to assert the need for historical or formal mediation precisely because the novels do not seem like they need it: because they seem im-mediate.

I would like to propose that it is this immediacy—this felt proximity over a temporal divide—that is the defining principle of the Victorian novel. Let me be clear, though: I certainly do not mean that this is some property shared by every British novel written between Oliver Twist and Jude the Obscure. When critics refer to “the Victorian novel,” they are generally applying some criterion of readability to separate out the texts from the context. Lots of people wrote books in the nineteenth century, but, if our shared field of reference is any indication, only about twenty-five or so of them wrote Victorian novels.[1] It’s not the case, though, that these particular writers were possessed of some particular timeless, or classic, quality. Designating a text as a classic in this fashion is something that can only be done from the perspective of the future. This is all to say, then, that a sense of familiarity is not something that we happen to encounter in the works we study, but rather the means by which we choose which works to study in the first place.

“Choose” is probably the wrong word here; we don’t freely choose which works make up the field. In part this is because of obvious institutional pressures. But a much more significant reason is that the felt proximity of Victorian novels tends to be a fundamental axiom for the field. In spite of the fact that we’re talking about works from another century, and another country, most of the critical apparatus built around the field depend on the notion that, in talking about the nineteenth century, we are talking about ourselves. Most forms of critical historicism—whether they tell time by a Marxist or Foucauldian clock—take this for granted: Victorian novels fall within the bourgeois epoch or the modern episteme. They describe a time that reflects meaningfully on our own time, but with enough temporal distance to allow us to recognize things about our society more effectively. We know ourselves better when we are placed, or so the story goes, when we can recognize ourselves in the past. If historicism shows a preference for denaturalizing certain texts, then along with this comes a preference for texts which seem natural in the first place. This isn’t only a point about historicism; formalism in general, and narratology more specifically, usually takes a certain coherence and legibility as a given. To the extent that nineteenthcentury realism becomes a key site for formal narrative analysis, it does so because it most fits the model of a story that makes sense, that works according to a narrative grammar that we understand.

For myself—and I think the same might be true for many at this symposium—this presentist heritage is one not that I would be anxious to divorce myself from. It seems to be an open secret among Victorianists that many of us are not primarily invested in either England or the nineteenth century. Speaking personally, I came to the field less because of a deep sense of attachment to either the time or the place, and more out of a desire to work within the closest thing the English language seemed to have to a realist tradition—and to work with the formalist and historical-materialist critical traditions that implies. I wasn’t interested, and am still not overwhelmingly interested, in “speak[ing] with the dead,” to use Stephen Greenblatt’s (1989, 1) famous phrase. I am more interested in talking to myself: the way I thought about my role in society, the way I encounter the fraught pleasures of reading. Not just talking to myself, actually; the choice of texts is not an individual one, so we are talking to ourselves.

I’ve been talking about Victorian novels here—and I’ll come back to that discussion again soon—but the points that I’m making are part of a larger argument about the nature of literary studies itself. If I had to try to pinpoint what it is exactly that literary studies actually studies, it wouldn’t be literary texts themselves. In fact, I wouldn’t say that it studies a separate object at all; rather it’s involved in the perpetuation and amendment of tradition. I don’t mean “canon” here: a tradition is not just the collection of works that we read. Rather, it is both the set of works that seem to us to explain us, and the body of discussion that looking backwards, institutes and interprets them. I’m borrowing liberally here from Hans-Georg Gadamer, much of whose work is devoted to the “interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter”:

The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the commonality that binds us to the tradition. But this commonality is constantly being formed in our relation to the tradition. Tradition is not simply a permanent precondition; rather we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition, and hence it further determine it ourselves. (Gadamer 2004, 293)

We choose the works we study based on present concerns, while doing so on the basis that these works are representative of the source of those concerns. Engaging with tradition is something like finding oneself in a Heinlein-esque time-travel paradox, in which we become our own grandparents. Here we produce the tradition that produces us. Furthermore, the teaching and publishing work we do—and the social importance we attribute to that work—is a constant implicit argument about the importance of both tradition and the perpetuation of tradition. It seems that what we are involved in is some sort of traditionary maintenance: in the automotive sense that we both keep something running and keep repairing it, adding or replacing parts when necessary, so that it continues to run.

Thinking about literary criticism, and perhaps the humanities more generally, as a traditionary practice helps to address some of the methodological concerns that have been part of the field at least since I. A. Richards—many of the same concerns, in fact, that seem to have motivated this symposium. For one thing, it seems evident to me that the project of contemporary literary criticism is not really the complete understanding of any particular text. You don’t need to justify writing a detailed analysis of, say, The Mill on the Floss. It is already taken for granted that it is of interest to modern readers. If you write on a novel outside the tradition, you need to justify yourself—usually be pointing out how it is in fact an overlooked part of the tradition. At the same time, literary studies is also not an explicit diagnosis of present social concerns; this begs the question by assuming that the appropriate medium for discussing the present is past literary and critical works. The point is that we are not looking at either the present or the past, so much as the relation of the two, through the medium of tradition. Texts are judged for their inclusion in the tradition—to exclude them would be to make them context—through their relevance to to present concerns. But present concerns are understood as being more readily understood through their instantiation in past texts.

The key point here is that if literary criticism is a traditionary discipline, it is not so much looking at the raw objects or data for empirical proof, as it is looking at what has already been said. Skeptical interventions in literary criticism—history of the book, say—usually point out the seeming divide between literary studies and the material and evidence of the empirical world. Fair enough, perhaps—there is a difference between traditionary methods and scientific methods, and a fair amount of difference within those two groups as well. This is not the place to consider the different forms that that claims to truth take in different disciplines—logical proof, falsifiable experiment, double-blind study—but it is worth reminding ourselves that one discipline is not just another discipline done poorly. If certain forms of material history or quantitative analysis stake their claim to truth on an elision of tradition through contact with the raw data or object that makes them a different, perhaps congenial, sort of analysis. Though I do wonder how much they continue to lean on tradition to justify studying these particular objects in the first place.[2] I think most people involved in literary studies would agree that our assertions are different from those in the natural sciences. We state our claims with more confidence (no p-values here), but we tend not to expect the claims to hold true for quite as long. I have only encountered a few critics who would look back on a first book or article and claim that they would change nothing. Scientific truth is falsifiable; humanistic truth is developmental. It’s more important to get it productively wrong—“rightly wrong,” in Beckett’s words—than to get it dully right. Gadamer again:

… the great experiences in the human sciences almost never become outdated…. the subject presents itself at different times or from different standpoints. We accept the fact that these aspects do not simply cancel one another out as research proceeds, but are like mutually exclusive conditions that exist by themselves and combine only in us. Our historical consciousness is always filled with a variety of voices in which the past is heard. Only in the multifariousness of such voices does it exist: this constitutes the nature of the tradition in which we want to share and have a part. Modern historical research itself is not only research, but the handing down of tradition. We do not see it only in terms of progress and verified results; in it we have, as it were, a new experience of history whenever the past resounds with a new voice. (285)

The form that evidence and argumentation takes in literary criticism is based on composing the right selection of prior voices, whether or not we agree with them. We know this, of course: anyone who has received an anonymous reader’s report knows the importance of correctly reciting the proper account of past opinions. The method of argumentation is always in some way developed around a reinterpretation of our shared past that will lead to a set of given present conclusions. And those present conclusions will, if we are lucky, become part of another’s recited tradition. If we are going to engage in methodological tussles, it seems important to have some firm grasp on what our traditionary methods entail, and the differences between them and other methods.

At this point, I’d like to return to the topic of the Victorian novel. I had mentioned earlier that the field seems to reiterate the tenets of a traditionary practice, not just in the way in studies, but in what it studies. That is, it seems to define its object of study as those past works in which we can recognize ourselves. But I think we can be a bit more specific now about what form that recognition takes. Recall earlier when I pointed out how traditionary arguments—based on ambitious errors and conversation with previous sources—could be understood as “developmental.” So are the novels we tend to read: the Bildungsroman has come, in most cases, to stand in as the model of British realist fiction. Even David Masson (1859, 266), in his 1859 British Novelists and Their Styles, gives the “art and culture novel,” in which “the design is to represent a mind of the thoughtful order, struggling through doubt and error toward certainty and truth,” a special pride of place as “the highest class of recent novels.” For Masson this sort of focus on character development also has the effect of elevating novels of other varieties (he lists thirteen in all). If we look now at which novels we read as primary examples of traditional subgenres—Oliver Twist as Newgate novel, Mary Barton as industrial— we see that the specific concerns get reinterpreted as stories of a character’s development and maturation. We do not only engage in a developmental traditionary practice: we do so by focusing on stories that are themselves celebrations of development (often, as with criticism, at the expense of any strong connection to the objects and data of the material world).

We can take it a step further, though: the form of development that these novels take is one which is dependent on recognizing yourself in the past. This is slightly different take on the way these novels are usually read: as a reintegration of an individual into a community. Only slightly different because such a reintegration is implicitly dependent on a community which pre-exists the novel’s protagonist. In other words, the emphasis in these novels is not so much on finding an entirely new place in a society as it is in recognizing the commonality between yourself and the others around you. It lies, in other words, in a reinterpretation of the past. Moretti (2000, 70) points to the moment in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth reconsiders Darcy’s proposal: “the facts have not changed, but their value…has. On second reading, the past is permeated with a new meaning.” This, for Moretti, is something like making the best of a bad situation; given unchangeable necessity, we can reinterpret it to call it “freedom.” Given the sort of dialectical relationships I’ve been describing with the past though—a constant creation of that which determines us—I would be hesitant to call it just a rationalization or compromise. In fact, I think we can see a closer connection between these temporal dynamics and the social dynamics we usually associate with the form. One of the distinctive quirks of the nineteenth century was to offer temporal solutions to social problems; the most familiar example is probably Scrooge’s promise that he would “live in the Past, the Present, and the Future” as a means of addressing the problems of unequal distribution spread spacially around him (Dickens 2003, 110). We can also look to the late nineteenth-century shift in the representation of utopian and dystopian imagination: from no-place to a future time. When it comes to the Bildungsroman, the classic form of the genre doesn’t just require that we become part of a community; it rather requires a recognition of yourself as having already been in a community without having realized it.

The claim that Bildungsromane make is that we do not only come to discover ourselves as part of a social whole; we come to discover instead that we have always been part of a social whole, and that our development lies in recognizing this fact. So, to take one central example from Wilhelm Meister, Wilhelm’s apprenticeship—his development, broadly speaking—begins to come to an end with his discovery that he is a father: “His apprenticeship was therefore completed in one sense, for along with the feeling of a father, he had acquired the virtues of a solid citizen” (Goethe 1989, 307). From paternity, then, comes citizenship, and the resolution of development. What makes this moment particularly notable though, is that the son that Wilhelm discovers, Felix, is not a stranger; Wilhelm has been caring for him for some time. So the moment that that Goethe highlights as the culmination of Wilhelm’s development is one in which, practically, very little changes. He had been taking care of Felix before, and would, presumably, continue to take care of him after. What changes is not the practical arrangement, but rather the character’s disposition toward it. Wilhelm does not become a citizen automatically as a result of paternity; he has to claim it.[3] The key difference here is one of will: Wilhelm is a biological father either way. The distinction is not between being something and being something else. Instead, it is a choice between, on the one hand, being something unknowingly and passively, and, on the other, asserting it as an act of will.

We see this active, willing dimension of development ephasized in a debate between Wilhelm’s mentor Lothario, and his petit-bourgeois friend Werner. Where Wilhelm and Werner’s disagreements had previously resolved around the role of art in society, or Wilhelm’s desire to “develop [him]self fully” (174), this conversation centers on the quite practical issue of paying taxes:

“I can assure you,” said Werner, “that in all my life I have never thought about the State, and only paid my dues and taxes because that was customary.”

“Well,” said Lothario, “I hope to be able to make a good patriot out of you. A good father is one who at mealtimes serves his children first; and a good citizen is one who pays what he owes to the State before dealing with everything else.” (311)

The exchange not only hammers home the citizen-as-father figure, but underlines one of its trickier implications. If, choosing to care for one’s children corresponds to choosing citizenship, then, carrying the metaphor in the opposite direction, civic society would seem to play the role not of a protector, disciplinarian, or enabler—it would instead play the role of a dependent. As if to ward off any confusion, Goethe has Lothario connect paying the state taxes to serving food to your children. Now, the question here is not whether Werner will pay his taxes, or even should pay his taxes. He already does so, and does so without question. By choosing actively to pay his taxes, though—by choosing to do what he already does—he switches the order of the parental metaphor around. No longer just a child of his community, he could come to see himself as the community as his own child: something that he has made as much as it has made him. This is the story that I’ve been discussing in my discussion of tradition, the developmental grandfather-paradox of self and community: we come to find ourselves in our current place by producing the past which produces us.

To close: Any argument about the possibilities of our field seems to me to require that we be clear about the unspoken assumptions of our field, the conditions of possibility for literary studies as we understand them. In the case of the Victorian novel, my sense is that we are dealing a set of interpretations that reiterate the form of the narratives they analyze. Through a traditionary practice that finds more truth about the present in the past, we produce a past that tells us the same story. Is this productive or is it deflating? I’m not sure. It certainly has a conservative ring to it. To refer to literary criticism as a traditionary practice might well seem at odds with the general assumption of progressive politics that most associate with the field. Leaning heavily on Gadamer doesn’t help the matter; his prima-facie conservative relation to tradition is evident in the quotes I offer above, and it has been one of the most consistently critiqued elements of his philosophy. It is difficult to read Gadamer’s account with tradition and not come away feeling like a Northern status-quo has been mixed up with primitive ontology. I think the advantage that literary criticism has in this regard—and perhaps particularly Victorian studies, the field that studies the conditions that allowed modern literary criticism to exist—is that it isn’t ontology; it’s an institutional practice that puts us in a prized place to understand the possibilities and limitations of tradition. Simon During’s (2012) recent work seems the best attempt I’ve seen to deal with these problems. Describing the academic humanities as “organized sites where groups of people gather collectively to examine, discuss, conserve, and transmit the past as it exists in texts, archives, images, and so on,” During turns to the possibility of a “resistance [from] out of conservatism” (56–57). It’s not an entirely happy thought. But During’s positioning of literary criticism in dialogue with conservatism does seem like an important first step in understanding the potential of literary studies. Our training, I think, gives us a certain privileged relationship with tradition. It’s what we already do; if we wish to make progressive defenses—whether of the academic humanities, or of speculative literary criticism—I think we have to figure out what we can do with it.


Dickens, Charles. 2003. A Christmas Carol, and Other Christmas Writings. Edited by Michael Slater. New York: Penguin.

During, Simon. 2012. Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations. New York: Fordham University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2004. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd ed. London: Continuum Books.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 1989. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Translated by Eric A. Blackall. Princenton: Princeton University Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 1989. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Masson, David. 1859. British Novelists and Their Styles. London: MacMillan and Co.

Moretti, Franco. 2000. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. New York: Verso.

Slaughter, Joseph R. 2007. Human Rights, Inc. New York: Fordham University Press.


[1] Twenty-six, actually, by my count. Start with a big eleven: all of Austen (not, it bears repeating, a Victorian), all of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, some of Collins, all of Dickens, all of Eliot, most of Gaskell, some of Gissing, all of Hardy, a bit of Thackeray, and as much Trollope as you can bear. Add two more to the count if we include James and Wilde. Then another thirteen, mainly for specialists, bringing us to twenty-six: Ainsworth, Bradden, Anne Brontë, Samuel Butler, Bulwer-Lytton, Carlyle (for Sartor Resartus), Disraeli, H. Martineau, Meredith, Oliphant, Shriner, Stevenson, and Stoker. Maybe Bradden and Meredith are in the first set now. I’m sure a few are missing, but beyond this set, I think the expectations of shared reference fall off sharply.

[2] On the flipside, I also think that literary critics would profit from remembering the limits of their own sorts of arguments. To take one piece of exceedingly lowhanging fruit: Freud’s place in the tradition says little about his medical reliability.

[3] “In Goethe’s novel, citizenship names the categorical distinction between ignorant subjection (the father as hapless sperm donor) and the conscious affirmation of social relations (the father as willing foster to his own child).” Slaughter (2007, 99).


Jesse Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University.  His book Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel is forthcoming from Princeton UP.