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The introduction begins by addressing the uses of studying cultural institutions. It provides a working definition of ‘institution’ and a historical overview of the emergence of the infrastructure of institutions in the period 1700 to 1900. The logic of choosing the period is addressed in relation to the uneven translation from cultural institutions based on the court and church to voluntary institutions that had an arms-length relationship to the state. It also discusses the historical irony that just as a ‘romantic’ definition of the literary individualism emerged that might seem to pit literature against Institutions, there was a proliferation of institutions of literature. The purview of the collection in relation to British national and imperial culture and identities is explained and the opportunities for further work in related areas discussed in the framework of the collection’s own historical moment at a time when the university-based discipline of Literature seems to be undergoing a fundamental change in its structure and purposes.
This collection provides students and researchers with a new and lively understanding of the role of institutions in the production, reception, and meaning of literature in the period 1700–1900. The period saw a fundamental transition from a patronage system to a marketplace in which institutions played an important mediating role between writers and readers, a shift with consequences that continue to resonate today. Often producers themselves, institutions processed and claimed authority over a variety of cultural domains that never simply tessellated into any unified system. The collection's primary concerns are British and imperial environments, with a comparative German case study, but it offers encouragement for its approaches to be taken up in a variety of other cultural contexts. From the Post Office to museums, from bricks and mortar to less tangible institutions like authorship and genre, this collection opens up a new field for literary studies.
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