This essay examines the contribution of the Shelley Society to the rise of English studies in the late nineteenth century. It reconstructs what “studying English literature” signified outside the university at the time, offering a parallel history to the well-documented institutional account of the evolution of English studies. This essay builds and tests the theory that literary societies were agents for disseminating not only literature but scholarly practice, spreading productive debate about curricula, relevance, and the public benefit of literature over the English-speaking world. It also explores how literary societies publicly negotiated the controversial conception of English literature as a legitimate subject for scholarly pursuit, how they built the case for vernacular literature’s capacity to be studied “scientifically,” and how they then exported these ideas—and texts—across the globe.

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