THE STUDY OF LITERARY HISTORY comes—as does the closer investigation of any history, be it cultural, economic, social, etc.—with an unavoidable challenge. Trying to understand a historic period undoubtedly demands more than just recounting every document of it that has survived. Often as a result of the enormity of such a task, making sense of a bygone age also requires separating the seemingly important from the apparently irrelevant, the symptomatic from the singular, the influential from the ignored, and the original from the conventional. Yet while they might offer heuristically indispensable starting points and lines of enquiry, the narratives that come about through such processes of selection and rejection risk being incorrect in detail or unjust with regard to the complexity of a period; indeed, in the end, interpretations of historical periods run the danger of ending up as reductive, anachronistic, and falsely generalizing depictions of how and why things were done by whom, for whom, and to whom in another time.
In 1917 Max Weber gave a radical definition of the scientific mode of operation, claiming that “wer also nicht die Fähigkeit besitzt, sich einmal sozusagen Scheuklappen anzuziehen und sich hineinzusteigern in die Vorstellung, daß das Schicksal seiner Seele davon abhängt: ob er diese, gerade diese Konjektur an dieser Stelle dieser Handschrift richtig macht, der bleibe der Wissenschaft nur ja fern” (anyone who lacks the ability to don blinkers for once and to convince himself that the destiny of his soul depends upon whether he is right to make precisely this conjecture and no other at this point in his manuscript should keep well away from science). On the other end of the spectrum, however, attention to detail might even stand in the way of formulating a historical narrative. In 1918, one year after Weber delivered his lecture on “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (Science as Profession) in Munich, Lytton Strachey remarked in the preface to his Eminent Victorians: “The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art…. It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch.”