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Literary History


History traces the passage of men and women through time. Literary history charts their developments and experiments in writing in the hope that global discourse will be stimulated and cultures come to understand one another. It relates, compares, and categorizes the poetry, prose, drama, and reportage of authors at various periods. The process started when the artistic deployment of language (poetry, polemic, drama, and stories) began to inspire a significant following. There arose a "culture of response" or a body of peoplepriests, scholars, educators, and fellow writerswho extolled select works and ensured their preservation in archives and public buildings. In this manner a "canon" or corpus of writing was put together that was deemed significant in relation to the culture because it reflected nationalistic bias, religious, political, or aesthetic partiality. The "models" or frameworks of admission altered as knowledge progressed, printing became widespread, and attitudes and styles of writing changed. Around the world separate cultures evolved their own criteria, forms, and traditions, ranging from doctrinal works such as Buddhist sutras and Vedic hymns to Japanese dance-drama (the Noh plays) and Chinese operatic drama or chuanqui. Within such works were found ideas that had a lasting effect.

In the Western model, for instance, Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) believed poetry was merely imitative, but Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) praised its imaginative truth, while Homer thought his inspiration "God given"standpoints that were echoed and debated down the centuries. After the Greeks and Romans, many critical ideologies emerged in Europe, invoking morality, passion, and truth to life and authorial intention, but it was not until the twentieth century that the sound of theories clashing drowned the traditional debate between critic and author (a debate that did not much affect the public who continued to read books for pleasure). Ironically the shift of spotlight from creator to commentator climaxed in a critical task force that sought to detonate its own foundations or "de-construct" the very language of its discourse. Ostensibly radical, this was no more than a revival of an ancient revolt. For language from the start had always sought to analyze or "argue" the authority of its being, just as man had always sought to challenge the authority of God. From the beginning, literary history tended to be presented as a sequential progressiona dialogue or "confrontation" between successive ages and schools of writing, one "great book" or "genius" spurring another, starting with texts concerned with man's status in the universe, specifically his mortal limitations as opposed to the immortal gods.

Early interest focused on myth, out of which emerged the hero who stood taller than the rest, loyal, brave, and fabulously resilient. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of a swaggering young prince who defies the gods, bonds with another warrior-hero, and meets the fate that such a rebellion inevitably courts. It ends with a massively moving death lament. Gilgamesh has to die in order that he retain his humanity. If he did not, he would be a god and forfeit that essential realism, or truth to the mutable world, that is the hallmark of great literature.

The Greeks showed a similar preoccupation with gods and heroes. If their analysis went deeper, they too held by laws in which the overreacherthe man who commits an irreversible act against natureis abandoned to the Furies (primitive avenging spirits), who demand he be sacrificed in order to maintain the status quo. This is notable in Greek tragedies, especially Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, whose harsh, unrelenting climax is often viewed as pitiless. With respect to such forms, Aristotle introduced an ethical dimension when he analyzed the rhetorical devices and idioms of the fourth century b.c.e. in his Poetics, a foundation-stone for students of literature (as well as Hollywood scriptwriters), for it launched the notion of plot or mythos as a device conveying unity of theme and action. Crucially, the concepts mimesis and catharsis were defined, the first positing language as imitation and the second dealing with the emotional purgationa mix of horror and pityarising in the spectator of a powerful tragedy. Aristotle's compatriot, Plato, denied the highest truth to literary art, seeing literature as too attractively persuasive. As for the Greek myths, with their stunning organic imagery and metamorphoses, they inspired every age of literature, perpetually updated and adapted as novels, operas, and plays.

The Religious Imperative

Equally far-reaching, in Europe, was the impact of Christianity. With its volatile mix of stories, poems, and sacred and prophetic texts, the Bible provided a moral groundwork that formed the basis for hagiographies, sermons, and devotional verses. The book of Genesis unlocked "Logos," the divine word or sacred seal of inspiration: thus, being literally "God given," language was able to transcend the clasp of mortality and enshrine the numinous. Literature was annexed for the promulgation of doctrine. A library was an institution that preserved sacred texts rather than a place where a commoner might go and acquire knowledge. The one great rebel was Satan, who, having been expelled from Heaven, pursued his counteroffensive among the fallen and fallible of the world.

With the spread of monotheism, the relationship of man to God dominated prose and poetry. In the early medieval period, fables, histories, and courtly tales of love and chivalry predominated. Stories were promoted as exempla, designating a suitable way to behave in order to draw down grace or, alternatively, court damnation. However, in the Phaedrus, Plato had placed art a rung below "truth," being a product of materiality rather than spirit. Hence it could never be wholly trusted.

So that the Bible should hold absolute authority, this doctrine was modified by the Scholastics (c. 8001400), whose era of crippling, devotional studiousness was shattered by the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuriesan amazing upsurge in learning that held fast to classical models (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero's rules of rhetoric) yet managed to accommodate a vast influx of new ideasfrom science, natural history, philosophy, theology, botany, mechanics, anatomy, and engineering. Literary art promoted a worldview with God and his angels at the top, a spiritual cartography that found its acme in Dante's Divine Comedy, in which love was the redeeming force and every station of saint and sinner had their precise place and part.

Naturally a great deal of literature was the preserve of monks and scholars who tended to propagate heroes of a devotional bent. By the time of the Reformation (1517), this mold showed signs of cracking. Eventually it was superseded by a new type of psychological truth, typified in England by the dramas of an emergent laity that included men such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, writers who portrayed charactersvillains, nobles, and commonersbursting with painful, turbulent contradictions hinting at the inadequacy of religion in engaging human dilemmas.

Enlightenment and Romanticism

The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is often vaunted as the age of reason. But it was also an age of passion, profound thinking, and revolutionary zeal, allied to a robust practicality, Aristotelian in outlook. John Locke (16321704) evolved a theory of the personality and a farsighted, liberal political philosophy. Less idealistic, Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan (1651), a masterly analysis of man's place with regard to nature and society. Religion remained institutionally entrenched (if a little shriveled by the skepticism of David Hume) and the dominant literary mode, classic in character and reformist in outlook, found its outlet in urbane, sometimes sardonic stylists like Voltaire (16941778) and Diderot (17131784) in France. Equally puncturing of pretensions were the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope and John Dryden in England and novelists like Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, portraying social rather than God-seeking characters engaging in intrigues and amours.

The French Revolution brought republicanism, in which commoners replaced kings, and taxes were more evenly distributed. But military aspirations rampaged across Europe and Russia until the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte. The Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were caught up in this spirit of rebellion. Liberty was the shibboleth of the poets William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelleya word hoarding spiritual and political connotations. Language no longer favored the noble above the plain, for it was thought that the artist's intention elevated the subject matter. German Romanticism followed in the wake of the English initiative and, like its forerunner, throbbed with nature, passion, and intrigue but with an added spicing of wit and sexuality.

Where the Romantics had shown a preoccupation with themes like murder, intrigue, and incest, the nineteenth century developed the skills of everyday observation. Above all, it was the age of realism in the novel, embodied in the psychological narratives of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot: multilayered fictions set in worlds so convincingly realized that they seemed to reflect life as experienced rather than imagined. It was also a time of the professional man of letters who, at intervals, appraised the state of culture, typical English examples being Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, the first a poet of distinction and the second a social critic and art historian. Victorian poetry was marked by a facile, routine romanticism that finally darkened and putrefied: hence the morbidity of content, the gothic shadow falling over some of the works of Robert Browning (18121889), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (18091892), and Edgar Allan Poe (18091849).

The final decade of the nineteenth century was enlivened by the walk-on of the decadents, who started in France but quickly spread over the English Channel, espousing a doctrine similar to the symbolists: that art was free to treat whatever subject it saw fit, whether pernicious or virtuous. Art for art's sake (a slogan translated from the French of the philosopher Victor Cousin) was the byword, emancipating the creatorif he or she so wishedfrom conscience or morality. The decadents liked to celebrate small, exquisite instants in small, exquisite poems, sipping at life as if it were a rare wine.

From Masterpiece to Text

With the advent of the twentieth century came a shift from elitism to inclusivism. Despite the elite radicalism of factions such as the modernist who sought to break with the past and incorporate in their projects the staggering breakthroughs in science, anthropology, medicine, and psychology, the citadel of high culture was opening its gates. In the same way that the people of various countries were demanding a government in which their opinions could play a central role, literature became more democratic, spawning free libraries, open scholarships, and popular editions. Eventually there spread an awareness that all facets of culture, oral or written, constitute a "text," and the traditional fixation on a corpus of "masterpieces" was a blinkered way of evaluating culture.

A noted leveler was the psychologist Sigmund Freud (18561939), who showed how people tend to think and act the samethat all are dominated by hidden urges. Each man and woman has a subconscious in which sexual desires bubble and fume and are liable to spill over in erratic or outrageous behaviorideas that opened the floodgates of creativity and literary experiment, unleashing the "stream of consciousness" technique, in which a rush of unpunctuated, sometimes loosely associated words are made to stand for dreaming or thought-play, notable exponents of the latter being James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.

As experiment brewed in artistic circles, elsewhere the dream of freedom was degenerating into tyranny and nightmare. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin wrested power in 1924, followed by Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933. Both the Communist and Nazi regimes banned free speech. In Russia, novelists were condemned as "insufficiently ideological" or as putting self before state, and in Germany the works of select writers were ritually burned as "Jewish" or "decadent." Literature was promoted as an extension of a cause, much as it had been during the Middle Ages. Whereas Nazism had effectively died out after World War II, the Communist dream persisted through the writings of Karl Marx (18181883), whose ideas pioneered an influential school of literary criticism.

Marx's thesis was that the worker, alienated from his product by contractual enslavement, had no status and was there solely to serve his master. And, of course, to him the master was equally remote, unsolid, and this notion of invisibility or "nonpresence" takes us to the core of modern literary theory: the author as anonymous ghost haunting the boundaries of his or her text.

For just as science at the turn of the century was breaking matter into tinier and tinier particles, literary criticism was separating the finer elements of language, analyzing units of sound and syntax. The theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913) identified sequences of self-contained signs whose parts could be isolated into vocal utterances (parole ) and the abstract structure that organized them (langue ). Saussure was a major influence on the Russian formalist movement, which had its inception in 1914 at Saint Petersburg, headed by the critic Viktor Shklovsky (18931984), who fused symbolist ideas with his own manifesto, demanding autonomy for the text, discarding any social role for literature, and cultivating metaphor, mystery, and radical perception.

This propensity to focus on language, its emotional and figurative charge, was also a precept of the New Criticism that developed in England and the United States after World War I. Treating a poem or novel as a self-contained artifact, this approach took the text apart in a precise, clinical manner, paying attention to aesthetic balance, the interplay and opposition of imagery, excluding social and biographical factors that existed beyond the page. The overall unity of the workhow parts were orchestrated to harmonize or counterpoint one anotherwas considered as indicative of its quality in the "Western tradition," which held by formal standards of excellence.

With emphasis on the autonomy of texts, words drifted from their anchorage in the physical. Signifiers were seen as signaling to each other rather than the reader. This reached its apotheosis in the writings of Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), who subverted the notion of a single meaning. The author was not a spider presiding over a web of words. No, he was a fly trapped in itunaware that his work held messages at odds with the stance he thought he had taken. What critics of the past had done was "privilege" various angles and themes, taking in current thought and social mores, but their readings were more acts of faith than rational appraisals. Derrida drastically hinted that the totalitarianization of meaningthe obsession with a single clear authorial intentionfound a counterpart in the inflexible rationalism of the Nazi death camps.

Such theories began to infuse the novel, which started to question its own fictive illusion, just as had the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (18981956) when he sought to separate the political message from the drama by exaggerating the elements of artifice and so creating a sense of "alienation." So-called metafictions were produced that ridiculed the procedures of novel writing and, in one instance (B. S. Johnson's 1964 novel Albert Angelo ), had the angry author breaking through the page shouting, "O fuck all this lying!" At last, Narcissus had smashed the mirror.

Guilt and Contrition

Aside from innovation, propaganda, and linguistic debate, the twentieth century was an age of guilt and contrition. The guilt was based on a dawning awareness of the elitism of Western culture. Contrition took the form of an eagerness to make good the oversight by broadening the definition of literature and including in its field hitherto silent minorities whose voices initially took the form of protest, their cultures having been so long patronized that the "imaginative" content needed longer to emerge. In 1925 the educator and critic Alain Locke (18851954) issued a manifesto to young black American artists, challenging them to draw upon the power of African art as avant-garde artists in Europe had done. However, many of those to whom he appealed had not even been to Africa, and to them it was as much a place of fantasy as it was to the white men. Africa was grasped in terms of distance, vastness, and a savage sensualityqualities that writers like D. H. Lawrence (18851930) had strained to capture. Negritude had its origin in the Caribbean and was defined by poets like Léopold Sédar Senghor, who conveyed a sense of anger and injustice in torn, surreal images.

Another minority impacting on current thought were women writers who mobilized to form a cultural force after World War II, key texts being Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970). The matter had earlier been raised in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), but the tone was now combative, attacking the patriarchal roots of the Western canon and drawing attention to female writers whose stature had been overlooked or denied. Such efforts stimulated a massive wave of gender-based critiquesgynocriticismthat analyzed and tried to reshape the culture that, as they saw it, was based on male bias and partiality.

With the interest in hitherto marginalized groups and communities came an increased recognition of the political and economic factors that permeate culture and leave their impress. Insights like these gave rise to the New Historicism, a mainly American school of criticism, Marxist in flavor, that used texts to pinpoint the political and social conditions, the ideologies and judgments that, inevitably, color and bias writingin opposition to the Romantic view of the author being a wellspring of unpolluted inspiration. The critic analyzes oddments, small, previously ignored details and facts, typical yet eloquent, exposing literature as a tool of history.

Contemporary Dilemma

By the twenty-first century, the Western model of literary history had been dramatically extended, taking in Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, the South Pacific, and the Arab world. Its approach had been criticized as a series of "generalizations" working through contrasts and continuitiesan "institutionalized subjectivity," as the French critic Roland Barthes would have it. (And yet, many believed, such a summary or "distortion" is inevitable if information is to be condensed within a certain remit.) It infers an almost kinetic impact between literary movements, whereas a scientist might argue this is not how things happen, merely a habit of human perception. Is the model then valid? Or is it a piece of illusionism, a series of traditionally accepted linkages? This is the type of question literary history had begun to ask of itself. Having broadened its scope to encompass the world, it was almost the history of everything ("everything" and therefore "nothing," some critics might say).

Thus previous classifications were being reexamined and fresh approaches made, considering not just the text but, for example, the prevalent institution, the critical orthodoxy or heterodoxy, in which it was first received. Threads of movements such as classicism, romanticism, and naturalism, together with critical theory, were being redefined within a pattern that, inevitably, will grow more intricate and extensive as the field of study reaches out to the vernacular, cinematic, and oral, where previously it had focused on the canonical. The new methodology will go far beyond the aesthetic, developing an increasingly comparative methodology, moving between past and present, drawing on disciplines like sociology, economics, and politics.

This epic inclusiveness generates anxiety as well as excitement among its practitioners, who must trace vibrations from reader to society, from society to politics, from politics to the world. Keeping literary history up to date is like being both cannibal and victim, devouring past texts in the hope of completion, only to be swallowed in turn by the recorders of futurity.

See also Literary Criticism ; Literature .


Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. London and New York: Penguin, 1996. A friendly, accessible rendering that reads well.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. Analytical classic demonstrating how great works of literature stand in relation to their times.

Blake, N. F. An Introduction to the Language of Literature. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. Aims to define what sets "literature" apart.

The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. 9 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 19892001. Authoritative reference series.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Key text of deconstructionism.

Lodge, David, ed. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London and New York: Longman, 1988. Both this book and the one below contain useful introductions and selections of source material.

. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism: A Reader. London and New York: Longman, 1972.

Norris, Christopher. The Truth about Postmodernism. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. A counteroffensive to the "heresies" of postmodern culture.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Reidlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Foundation stone of linguistics.

Paul Newman

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