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Building upon his previous work on the emergence of "literature," Trevor Ross offers a history of how the public function of literature changed as a result of developing press freedoms during the period from 1760 to 1810. Writing in Public examines the laws of copyright, defamation, and seditious libel to show what happened to literary writing once certain forms of discourse came to be perceived as public and entitled to freedom from state or private control. Ross argues that-with liberty of expression becoming entrenched as a national value-the legal constraints on speech had to be reconceived, becoming less a set of prohibitions on its content than an arrangement for managing the public sphere. The public was free to speak on any subject, but its speech, jurists believed, had to follow certain ground rules, as formalized in laws aimed at limiting private ownership of culturally significant works, maintaining civility in public discourse, and safeguarding public deliberation from the coercions of propaganda. For speech to be truly free, however, there had to be an enabling exception to the rules. Since the late eighteenth century, Ross suggests, the role of this exception has been performed by the idea of literature. Literature is valued as the form of expression that, in allowing us to say anything and in any form, attests to our liberty. Yet, paradoxically, it is only by occupying no definable place within the public sphere that literature can remain as indeterminate as the public whose self-reinvention it serves.
An indigenous canon of letters, Ross argues, had been both the hope and aim of English authors since the Middle Ages. Early authors believed that promoting the idea of a national literature would help publicize their work and favour literary production in the vernacular. Ross places these early gestures toward canon-making in the context of the highly rhetorical habits of thought that dominated medieval and Renaissance culture, habits that were gradually displaced by an emergent rationalist understanding of literary value. He shows that, beginning in the late seventeenth century, canon-makers became less concerned with how English literature was produced than with how it was read and received. By showing that canon-formation has served different functions in the past, The Making of the English Literary Canon is relevant not only to current debates over the canon but also as an important corrective to prevailing views of early modern English literature and of how it was first evaluated, promoted, and preserved.
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