Oxford in English Literature: The Making, and Undoing, of 'the English Athens'
University of Michigan Press, 1998 - Literary Criticism - 363 pages
As "the English Athens," Oxford has long been seen as central to England's intellectual life. For over six centuries the city has been lauded, slighted, and cited in the pages of English literature. While it has been hailed as the embodiment of excellence, beauty, and truth on the one hand, it has also been attacked for its elitism, insularity, and traditionalism on the other. Oxford in English Literature provides for the first time an overview of these literary representations, ranging from Chaucer's account of medieval students to modern-day detective stories set in the city.
The book begins with the early university, possibly founded by an eighth-century princess named Frideswide. The volume moves on through the Middle Ages with Chaucer's clerks and Foxe's martyrs. Oxford in English Literature touches on more recent centuries with Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, Matthew Arnold, Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh, and the "Infamous St. Oscar." Following the rise of the colleges, the literature becomes characterized by a sense of insulation, for the closed collegiate structure led to elitism and eccentricity. The notion of the university as a paradise of youth, beauty, and intelligence led to the so-called Oxford myth and the backlash against it after World War II.
The underlying argument of John Dougill's work is that the defining symbol of Oxford is not so much the dreaming spire as the college wall. In Oxford literature the college is depicted as a world of its own--secluded, conservative, and eccentric, driven by its own rituals. Idealized, it becomes a cloistered utopia, an Athenian city-state, a fantasy wonderland, or an Arcadian idyll. Exclusivity led to resentment from those on the outside, as is evident in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. With the advent of democratic and egalitarian values in the twentieth century, the privilege and elitism of the university has come under increasing attack, as has the whole notion of the "English Athens."
Oxford in English Literature is aimed at the general reader interested in the literature and history of a very unusual town. Its familiar subject and the inclusion of numerous rare and specially commissioned illustrations and photographs make this a compelling book.
John Dougill is Associate Professor of English Literature, Ryukoku University, Kyoto, Japan. He is an Oxford graduate and author of The Writers of English Literature.
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Oxford in English Literature: The Making, and Undoing, of the English Athens
No preview available - 2010
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