Why Literary Periods Mattered

The selections from Ted Underwood’s book on literary periods were eye-opening. As with much of the material in this course, I found myself initially resistant to his ideas—I will blame my commitment to longstanding methods on being a Taurus. I agree that the emphasis on periodization and the dramatization of historical continuity can be harmful or at least limiting. Prominent periods/movements like romanticism, modernism, etc. do become institutionally entrenched in a sense, with courses on those periods being routinely offered. While I love all the literature classes I’ve taken, I will read an article now and then that will awaken me to (often interdisciplinary) trends that fit my interests but would be difficult to encounter in a standard period survey. At the same time, I’m 1) still coming to terms with distant reading and 2) allegiant to my “teams,” which are often periods or movements, the very taxonomies Underwood finds confining. I always hear music critics say that in the 90s, it was uncommon to publicly like indie rock and pop, grunge and rap, etc. I feel that there is something pure about identifying yourself with a category that—like modernism, postmodernism, etc.—may be complicated and fraught itself but still exists as a recognizable category. Underwood writes that genres like romanticism and realism “were themselves participating in broader discursive trends” which “play out on a scale that literary scholars aren’t accustomed to describing, and it may take decades for us to figure out how to describe them” (169). As someone new to grad school, I have found the potential for period specialization exciting. I am easily most interested in contemporary literature (and, movement-wise, confessional poetry). That said, the vision of literary studies that Underwood offers does seem more progressive, comprehensive, and nuanced.