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Rhetoric, Poetics, and Literary Historiography

The Formation of a Discipline at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Stefan H. Uhlig

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Belletristik / Essays, Feuilleton, Literaturkritik, Interviews


In Rhetoric, Poetics, and Literary Historiography, Stefan H. Uhlig offers a new account of the emergence of literary studies. Most histories of the early years of the field search for unifying origins of literature as a discipline and object of study. Uhlig turns to the decades around 1800 in Europe to reveal that the inception of the literary field was instead defined by intellectual diversity and contestation. He draws on an array of European writers to show how three schools of literary study—rhetoric teaching, theories of poetry, and literary history—emerged and clashed during this time, offering near-contemporaneous, yet divergent, visions of how to understand literature. Rhetoric and poetics thwarted criticism, to different ends, while literary historiography proved institutionally reassuring yet less useful as a tool for textual understanding.

Uhlig details how Scottish writers like Adam Smith and Hugh Blair taught rhetoric as a form self-expression, while Anglophone and German theorists of poetry like William Wordsworth, Friedrich Schlegel, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both engaged with and resented critics. At the same time, varying opinions on the practice of literary history emerged, with Immanuel Kant and Thomas De Quincey arguing for the independence of literature from historical forces while writers like Matthew Arnold approached literature as a means of narrating cultural archives instead of drawing on close reading and analysis. Rhetoric, Poetics, and Literary Historiography traces current debates in literary studies back to this formative moment, serving as a guide to past and present controversies in the field.



critic, rhetorical persuasion, close reading, revisionist, American English Departments, European literature, intellectual history, Arnold, literary history, philology, aesthetics, interpretation, Goethe, rhetoric, subjectivity, genealogy, archive, Wordsworth, Hugh Blair, literary criticism, Kant, microhistory, study of, Adam Smith, Hazlitt, eighteenth nineteenth century, Schlegel, comparative literature, Coleridge, History of literary studies, poetics, De Quincey, critical theory