Literary studies is in an extraordinary moment of self-reflection. Under pressure from enrollments and a cutthroat job market, scholars of literature increasingly confront questions about their value within universities. Meanwhile, the expansion—some might say “occupation”—of fields like film studies, visual studies, and digital humanities within English departments has once again raised the issue of disciplinary autonomy. For if, as N. Katherine Hayles has suggested, departments of English may eventually dissolve into a more general “Comparative Media Studies,” what role does conventional, periodized literary studies have in the future of the humanities?

These are the anxieties that motivate Ted Underwood's book Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Taking a historicist approach, Underwood traces the importance of literary periodization back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when, he argues, “literature's power to cultivate readers” began...

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