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Genre Theory and Historical Change

Theoretical Essays of Ralph Cohen
John Rowlett

BUY Cloth · 432 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940113 · $65.00 · Nov 2017
BUY Ebook · 432 pp. · ISBN 9780813940120 · $65.00 · Nov 2017

Ralph Cohen was highly regarded as the visionary founding editor of New Literary History, but his own theoretical essays appeared in such a scattering of publications that their conceptual originality, underlying coherence, and range of application have not been readily apparent. This new selection of twenty essays, many published here for the first time, offers a synthesis of Cohen’s vital work.

In these pages Cohen introduces change and continuity as essential modes of discourse in the study of literary behavior, an approach that can produce reliable narratives of literary, artistic, and cultural change. Here Cohen conceptualizes and develops a compelling, innovative theory of genre that promotes a systematic study of historical change, offering rewarding insights for twenty-first-century scholars.


Cohen’s lucid, erudite writings on the history and theory of genres have influenced generations of scholars and helped to keep genre study at the center of literary-historical methodology. This skillfully edited selection of his published and unpublished essays reveals the impressive coherence of his approach to generic phenomena and his far-reaching insight into the problem of literary change. An illuminating book which will be warmly welcomed by anyone interested in questions of genre, both in his specialist field of eighteenth-century studies and across all periods of literature.

David Duff, Queen Mary University of London, author of Romanticism and the Uses of Genre

Ralph Cohen has long been our preeminent theorist of genre, turning this most elusive of concepts into a supple vehicle for thinking about historical continuity and change, the necessity of classification and its necessary transience. Seeing genre as an evolving system of distinctions and interrelations, he turns the empirical variability of the literary field into its most reliable cross-time architecture. These lucid, precise, endlessly scintillating essays put us forever in their debt.

Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University, Editor of PMLA

Profoundly humane, richly informed, deeply cultured, and ever alive to conceptual issues, Ralph Cohen showed an entire generation how literary and philosophical issues and texts could be brought together in mutually enlightening ways. Individually, these are the works of an acknowledged master; taken together, they re-enliven our appreciation and deepen our understanding of the powerful role that genre plays throughout our literary thinking. John Rowlett, both in his thoughtful and moving introduction and his exacting editing throughout this absorbing volume, has performed a great service to the entire world of literary scholarship. A volume of enduring interest and relevance.

Garry L. Hagberg, Bard College, Editor of Philosophy and Literature

"Cohen’s work over the decades has been significantly original and offers a major contribution to the understandings of genres and history, literary history, and especially literary genre study. Collecting Cohen’s essays is an important project."

Amy Devitt, University of Kansas, author of Writing Genres

John Rowlett has done literary scholars a great favor by bringing together Ralph Cohen’s essays in a single volume.  Cohen’s voice—lucid, precise, probing, analytically tenacious, sometimes caustic—can be heard throughout. This is a remarkable contribution to genre criticism and to what Cohen eloquently describes as "the disturbing joys and pleasurable sorrows of literary theory."

Rita Felski, University of Virginia, Editor, New Literary History

The leitmotif of this landmark book, and perhaps of the lifelong critical project of Ralph Cohen (1917–2016), might be summarized as 'genre unbound.'... Cohen's call for an enlivened interplay of history and theory (themselves genres) makes this collection a timely theoretical intervention.


Ralph Cohen is best known as the founding and longtime editor of New Literary History.... He founded New Literary Historyin 1969...and edited it through 2008....Cohen published relatively little of his own work after founding the journal....As Rowlett notes, few of them have been much cited, a fact that makes the present collection doubly welcome. Rowlett's collection comprises twenty pieces, eight of them previously unpublished.... Genre Theory and Historical twenty fairly disparate, mostly occasional articles and talks written over a period of some thirty-five years. The pieces share concern with "genre" and "historical change." All are thoughtful and provocative, certainly well worth reading and pondering.

Robert D. Hume, Penn State University · The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer

About the Author(s): 

The late Ralph Cohen, emeritus Professor of English at the University of Virginia, founded the internationally known scholarly journal New Literary History. John L. Rowlett is an independent scholar and former Program Director for the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change.

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