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In the last ten or so years, the field of contemporary literature studies has become increasingly interrogative of its own definition and methods, raising questions about the meaning of “contemporary” and the challenge the literature of the present makes to scholarly norms. As a means of more fully understanding these challenges and clarifying the distinct qualities of contemporary literature as a field of study, this essay offers a close history of the field’s institutional origins via the first scholarly journals of modern and contemporary literature (Modern Fiction Studies, Twentieth-Century Literature, Critique, Contemporary Literature). This history reveals the extent to which the field’s current problematics originate in a number of crucial midcentury events: namely, the expansion of the higher education system, the institutionalization of modernism, and the invention and legitimation of scholarly methods for the study of contemporary fiction. Moreover, this history allows for the field’s present anxieties about canonization, periodization, and the distinction between criticism and scholarship to be recognized not as obstacles to be overcome but the immanent, distinctive subject matter of contemporary literature studies.