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Richard Somerset and Matthew Smith. Mapping Fields of Study: The Cultural and Institutional Space of English Studies

Nancy : Presses Universitaires de Nancy - Éditions Universitaires de Lorraine, 2019. 354 p. ISBN : 10 2814305328. 18 €
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Richard Somerset and Matthew Smith. Mapping Fields of Study: The Cultural and Institutional Space of English Studies. Nancy : Presses Universitaires de Nancy - Éditions Universitaires de Lorraine, 2019. 354 p. ISBN : 10 2814305328. 18 €

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1Mapping Fields of Study is a welcome foray into the history and epistemology of English studies in the English-speaking world. The editorial work undertaken by Richard Somerset and Matthew Smith brings clarity of purpose to a collection of essays designed to provide the reader with an overview of the evolution of English studies from their 19th-century origins to the present day. Unlike a number of edited volumes, the book has a definite scope and no chapter strays from the perimeter of inquiry defined in the introduction and aptly rounded off by Somerset in the last chapter, which offers a reflection over the 21st century evolution in the Humanities at a time when the multiplication of sub-disciplines has tended to fragment the field “in a deeply politicised disciplinary landscape in which ‘culture’ has lost much of its former aptitude to federate” (337). To save the Humanities, Somerset suggests in his parting shot, its practitioners “will have to limit the temptation to seek validity exclusively in subjectivist fragmentation coupled with identitarian repackaging” (347).

2Such energetic conclusion must not conceal the fact that the other contributions take a more dispassionate view of latter-day evolutions in English studies, notably the chapter by Lee A. Flamand on the impact of cultural studies in the study of English and American literature in American universities. Indeed, Flamand warns against the “writing-off” of identity politics in the classroom, which would do away with “addressing not only the shadows of history but also the enduring social realities of marginalization and oppression”, thus “bracketing out the world in which our students live” (261). If pluralism is a defining feature of the Humanities, the book thus falls in line with this, as no overarching thesis emerges from the study of the epistemological processes discussed by the various authors.

3The chapters are organized in three thematic sections. The first one is dedicated to the process of discipline formation, from a theoretical and historical standpoint. The second one examines a set of national contexts (Britain, South Africa, India, the United States of America) in which English studies came to be institutionalized as the 20th century unfolded, while the last section is dedicated to the contemporary debates around the cultural studies paradigm, from the rise of post-modernism as a concept in the 1950s and the “return of the text” in the late 20th century to the current fragmentation of the Humanities owing to the 1980s rise of specialized fields (post-colonial, gender, queer studies, to name but a few of the recent sub-disciplines).

  • 1 In 2021, the number of applications received by English departments had declined by a third as comp (...)

4The subtitle (“The Cultural and Institutional Space of English Studies”) is a bit misleading, as the book does indeed tackle the emergence of the discipline, the vivid debates that it gave rise to in the Victorian period both in academia and beyond, and the early institutionalization of the field in Britain and in the English-speaking world, but most chapters indeed focus on the epistemologies upon which “English studies” were built over the last century and a half. One missing element is thus the 20th and 21st-century institutional evolution of English departments in British universities. This is what, in their respective chapters on English studies in South Africa and India, Riaan Oppelt and Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn endeavour as they delineate the history on English studies in these national contexts, from their 19th-century origins to the present day. A companion chapter synthesizing the same process in the UK and the USA would have been very valuable and constituted some sort of hyphen between the chapters centered upon the Victorian era and those tackling the contemporary period. This would have usefully complemented the book, notably owing to the pressing challenges English studies are currently faced with in British academia.1

5That said, the British case is certainly not neglected. Three illuminating chapters indeed cover the Victorian debates over science and culture and their relevance to the rise of English studies.

6Matthew Smith dedicates a thorough and lively chapter to Henry Morley, who held the English Language and Literature chair at University College London for 24 crucial years. Smith’s argument consists in demolishing the view propounded by Terry Eagleton, according to whom English was “a cheapish “liberal” education for those beyond the charmed circle of public school and Oxbridge”, which came to be “beamed” at the working classes but also at women, “a convenient sort of non-subject to palm off on the ladies” (110). Morley’s professional path, Smith insists, was not predicated upon a bourgeois willingness to exert social control over the oppressed sections of the population, quite the contrary. A sincere reformer and a staunch anti-imperialist, Morley was a believer in social progress, an advocate of mass education and a supporter of women’s rights, which enables Smith to re-instate the “progressivist founding” (141) of the field.

7Somerset, decidedly ubiquitous in the book, takes the controversy between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold over the concept of culture as his starting-point to study the disciplinary diversification of the English universities, encompassing in the process not just English Lit, but more widely the whole Humanities and Natural Sciences, at a time when geologists, naturalists, historians or literary critics were all “story-tellers” telling stories leading “unanimously to the same dénouement: the consecration of the present as a providential, political or cultural ideal” (94), who all shared “the liberal ideology of the emergent middle-class professional and industrial elite” (95).

8Angela Dustan retrieves the “Victorian experiments in reading scientifically”. Her chapter is the one which most convincingly takes on board the way epistemology, institutional and social history intersect. Famously condemned by the historian Edward Freeman as “mere chatter about Shelley” (148), English Literature was then considered by many as not worthy of being welcomed as a proper academic subject. To ward off such accusations of being unscientific, scholars developed scientific approaches to reading which were then popularized by one of their chief allies in this process of intellectual and institutional recognition, namely the literary societies. Dunstan pays tribute to the scholarly quality of the activities held within the Wordsworth, the Shelley or the Browning Societies, which contributed to the assertion of a “Baconian conception of science as a collective enterprise” (165) and acted as spaces “integral to the exchange of ideas between the amateur reading public and scholars” (166).

9In the last section dedicated to the contemporary period, apart from the last piece by Somerset mentioned earlier on, two papers tackle the effects of post-modernism first, and cultural studies, upon American academia. Simon Tabet, in a chapter written in French, tells the story of the origins of post-modernism in the American Human Sciences, from the mid-1950s to the 1980s. Here again, the scope of the discussion extends beyond the boundaries of “English studies”, as many of the conceptual developments associated with post-modernism found their way into such fields as the Arts or Architecture. Thomas Constantinescu looks back on the late 1990s, when the historical turn and its emphasis on context had all but eclipsed form and the text itself. Constantinescu makes use of various American critics of the “hermeneutics of suspicion”, to use Paul Ricoeur’s formula (301), so as to highlight the early 2000s “return of the text” dictum in American universities, which may be viewed as a swing of the methodological pendulum or, as Constantinescu notes, a tribute to a distinctive American rhetorical mode, the jeremiad (310). Like other contributors to this rich collection of essays, Constantinescu insists on the relevance of epistemological pluralism, and on complementarity of close reading and history, of both the literary and the polico-historical approach.

10For scholars working on the epistemology and institutional history of the Humanities, Mapping Fields of Study is to be stimulating, useful reading, to be followed, one hopes, by further inquiries into the way the field of English studies evolved and expanded from the 19th century onwards, notably with future research into the rise of English studies in other national contexts than in the English-speaking world.

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1 In 2021, the number of applications received by English departments had declined by a third as compared to 2012 (7,045 in 2021 versus 10,740 in 2012) while over the same period, the number of pupils taking A-levels in English had also decreased by a third (57,000 in 2021 versus 90,000 in 2012). See Fazackerley, Anna. “Novelists issue plea to save English degrees as demand slumps.” The Guardian, 19 June 2021, Accessed 13 June 2022.

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Philippe VERVAECKE, « Richard Somerset and Matthew Smith. Mapping Fields of Study: The Cultural and Institutional Space of English Studies »E-rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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