The great forgetting

I was recently reading a brief critique of the 1619 Project by Phillip W. Magness and I was a bit troubled by something he says about the misuse of a 1944 book by Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. Apparently writers of what’s called the New History of Capitalism often refer to Williams’ book to support their thesis that capitalism today is a natural outgrowth of the plantation slave system in the United States, when in fact what Williams meant was something nearly the opposite. “If anything,” Magness writes, “they cite it for its pairing of the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘slavery’ and then unintentionally invert its thesis.”

The suggestion, and Magness is not alone in making it, is that NHC scholars haven’t actually read Williams’ book but only grabbed hold of the title. This brought home to me an issue in the Humanities that has been growing for some time now. The basic problem is this: no person can hope to read more than a small fraction of everything that has been published on any given subject. Also, because of the way scholarly research is supposed to work, most of one’s research has to be given over to staying up-to-date and reading only recently published work. This may be part of the reason why the New History of Capitalism has been accused of being a silo, failing to engage with other work in the field. It also may explain why so few people have actually read a book written nearly 80 years ago. As scholarship advances (at least in theory) a lot of previous research just drops off into the abyss of the unread. It’s a great forgetting.

What Magness says reminded of a similar feeling I had when reading the chapter on King Lear in Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All. Garber cites very few secondary sources in her book. Indeed, in her essay on Lear she only references one:  an essay by Henry Turner that appeared in the journal Renaissance Drama in 1997. But why, I wondered, did she even bother? The point that the note provides authority for is wholly parenthetical: that in the text of the play the heath Lear rages on is never called a “heath.” The implication seems to be that nobody had noticed this before Turner, but in fact it’s long been common knowledge. It’s a point that A. C. Bradley mentions in passing in his Shakespearean Tragedy. Bradley’s book, however, is old. It first came out in 1904. So it doesn’t get cited.

I’m sure Garber has read Bradley. But Shakespeare is a good, perhaps the best, example of what I’m talking about here. Even fifty years ago it was understood that nobody could ever hope to read everything that had been and was being written on Shakespeare. As a result, there’s a cull when it comes to scholarship, which in turn means that wheels keep getting reinvented.

I think Garber citing a modern source for what was a commonplace observation more than a century ago is an interesting instance of how these things drop off the radar. I’ve often found myself reading contemporary literary criticism, or listening to a lecture or podcast, and thinking that the author or lecturer was saying nothing new while wondering if they were aware of that fact. It seems to me that a lot of American literary criticism in particular has now forgotten classic interpretive works from the mid-twentieth century, especially since author criticism and close reading has gone so much out of fashion. Large swathes of the Humanities now seem to be engaged in this great forgetting. It helps people get published, but it also leads to embarrassing mishaps like the kind Magness describes.

2 thoughts on “The great forgetting

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