“Cambridge English” and the uses of literature it implies proffer, still, an image central to our sense of the history of literary study. This essay explores the percolation of the discipline at a religiously reforming Cambridge. In the three decades before the inaugural (and comparatively late) appointment of Arthur Verrall to the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature in 1911, ideology and institution had collided brilliantly. The drawn-out process of formalizing literature as a discipline occurred within broader discussions about the nature of the new, secularized university: specifically, its reconstitution of purpose in the light of a series of legislative reforms (1855-1921) and its radically changing relation to the established Church of England. Events at Cambridge suggest decidedly unstable notions of public secularity and enduring uncertainty about reconciling tensions between precedents and ambitions. Literary study—cast variously as a substitution for theology, ideology, or even intellectual dilution—became a significant proxy for such debates.

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