Canon Formation and Evolution: The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature

The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, successor to The Cambridge History of English Literature, was published in 1941. In four volumes, the work totals nearly 3,000 double-columned pages and 300 pages of index. The collaborative project grouped authors by genre, categorized them as "major" or "minor," and included a wide range of topics such as education, travel, sport, and economics. Editor F. W. Bateson described the goal as "to record, as far as possible in chronological order, the authors, titles and editions, with relevant critical matter, of all the writings in book-form (whether in English or Latin) that can still be said to possess some literary interest, by natives of what is now the British Empire, up to the year 1900." Although critics acknowledged errors and omissions, it was hailed as a reference work for which "the learned world will be eternally grateful."

Countless English students and professors relied on CBEL in their work, but its lifespan was shorter than the "many generations" predicted. A second edition, edited by George Watson, was published in five volumes as The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature from 1969 to 1977. Reviewers welcomed the expanded content but criticized editorial decisions, such as repetition resulting from the effort to make each volume function independently, and the accuracy of entries.

Volume 4 (1800-1900) of a projected five-volume third edition was published in 2000, once again entitled The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature and edited by Joanne Shattock. The volume, more than fifty percent longer than its predecessor, eliminated the increasingly problematic distinction between "major" and "minor" authors. It introduced "hundreds of entries for writers previously omitted," reflecting dramatic changes in English literature scholarship and teaching in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The rise of women's studies, cultural studies, critical theory, and multicultural approaches are all documented in new and expanded sections.

Although there have been discussions of creating an electronic version of the third edition of CBEL, no further volumes have yet appeared. Research trends have certainly moved further away from author-centric, genre-based approaches, and the Internet has transformed how scholars find editions as well as secondary literature. Massive collaborative research projects are now far more likely to be produced in digital form with regular updates, additions, and corrections, blurring lines between a database and a new edition. But if the canon and research methodology exemplified by CBEL are no longer the standard, its status endures as a shaping influence on English literary scholarship for seventy-five years.