In This Article Terry Eagleton

  • Introduction

Literary and Critical Theory Terry Eagleton
by
James Smith
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0033

Introduction

Terry Eagleton (b. 1943) has been one of the most influential British literary critics and literary theorists of the postwar era. Born to a working-class family in Salford, northern England, Eagleton undertook his university study at the University of Cambridge, where he came under influences such as the Cambridge English of F. R. Leavis, the radical Catholic theology of the new left church and the Slant group, and the left-wing literary and cultural criticism of Raymond Williams—a figure who perhaps offered the most enduring influence. Eagleton gained his first academic post under Williams at Cambridge, before moving to Oxford in the late 1960s, where he spent the major portion of his career, eventually achieving the senior Thomas Warton Professorship there. His first publications were on topics such as Shakespeare and Catholic theology, but he achieved wider prominence with the rise of critical theory in the Anglo-American academy in the 1970s and 1980s. Initially his interventions focused on mediating emerging currents of continental Marxism, with Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Macherey, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Bertolt Brecht just some of the critical figures Eagleton engaged with in this phase of his work. In the 1980s he also provided combative left-wing engagements with post-structuralism, criticizing figures such as Jacques Derrida and the Yale critics, while also developing ways of deploying aspects of their work with a Marxist approach. His widest general prominence, though, came as a popularizer of critical theory, with Eagleton writing numerous influential primers and guides underpinning many of the developments in the teaching of literary criticism in universities over the past forty years. Since the 1990s Eagleton’s work has offered a variety of strategic interventions on topics such as aesthetics, postmodernism, tragedy, ethics, evil, and culture, to name only a few, as well as often writing on Irish cultural history. Recently this work has also returned to the theological interests of his earlier career, with Eagleton advocating the need for cultural criticism to address the metaphysical topics that high theory has arguably shied away from. Eagleton has also maintained a strong interest in the teaching of literature itself, with several books on approaches to literary criticism or the history of genres written over the past decade. More broadly, Eagleton’s reviews and essays frequently appear in widely circulated newspapers and periodicals, ensuring that he has attracted a readership far beyond that typically found for academic critical theory.

Primary Texts

Eagleton is one of the most prolific critics and theorists of modern times, having authored several dozen books and many hundreds of articles and reviews. The following list of his works is highly selective and focused on his most significant book-length studies. They are nominated due to the influence and readership they have had or the important marker they offer for tracking developments in his career. This selection primarily covers the period of the 1970s through to the early 2000s, which marks the period in which Eagleton was at the peak of his influence as a critical theorist, but more recent texts are also included when they offer a particularly notable intervention into contemporary debates. They have been grouped into main thematic categories for convenience, but many texts could easily straddle two or more of these groups.

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