The study of literature
The study of literature
In its modern descriptive sense, literature denotes written texts; by extension scholars have also applied the term to spoken or sung texts (“oral literature”), writings in particular subject areas (“medical literature”), other collections of material in a given language or national tradition (“English literature”), visual texts such as video and illustration, and published ephemera (“campaign literature”). It is often divided into historical periods (“Victorian literature”) as well as into formal categories (prose, poetry, or drama) and genres (such as the epic, the novel, or the folktale).
In its more traditional prescriptive sense (that of the 1911 Britannica), literature connotes a particular quality found in the written culture of humane learning, the profession of “letters” (from Latin litteras), and written texts considered as aesthetic and expressive objects. In that sense, the art of “literature” differs from the science of “language,” as studied by theoretical linguists and cognitive psychologists such as Steven Pinker.
Literature as a subject worthy of academic study was first identified in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the English word itself back to the 1200s (when it described familiarity with classical learning); not until the early 1800s was it used in the more modern sense. Classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome generally never recognized the study of “literature” as a discipline per se; rather, they looked at forms such as drama, history, poetry, philosophy, and mythology on their own terms, or in terms of various schools of philosophical or religious thought. With the revival of advanced learning in late medieval and Renaissance Europe, though, the focus of study became classical literature itself—the sense first recorded by the OED; a person of “letters” was one who knew the classical traditions, and could read the classics. Only after literature in modern vernaculars became too significant to ignore did the current sense of the word develop.
European universities long resisted according writers working in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and other vernacular languages the same status in their curricula as that given to writers of classical Latin and Greek. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and their contemporaries were always conscious of the perceived inferiority of their native language, even as they rivaled and surpassed the literary achievements of their classical precursors. As scientific learning began to supplant classical learning in the early nineteenth century, universities added philology (the predecessor of modern linguistics) as a discipline, but that field focused more on the historical relationships between languages than on their literature.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the first institutions to offer instruction in literature were not the elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, but those geared toward students seeking to move up in the world, such as the London Working Men’s College (founded in 1854). There, much to their surprise, sons of London bricklayers and artisans encountered teachers such as F.J. Furnivall, an early editor of the OED, who opened his classes with the dramatic announcement that he was about to return a national literature to its citizens, and then commenced reading aloud in Middle English from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, J.C. Collins stressed the influence of classics on English literature, shifting studies of the language away from philology and toward the present-day discipline of comparative literature. In the United States, the study of literature was introduced at normal schools (schools for the preparation of teachers, mostly women at that time), and subsequently at land grant universities, where English literature was given the place assigned at older universities to reading in Latin and Greek.
First Edition of Quiller-Couch
First Edition of Quiller-Couch
Early professors of English literature, among them Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and Henry Morley, devoted much of their attention to establishing a canon of suitable texts for study. In the twentieth century, this led to standardized anthologies, such as the Oxford and Norton anthologies of English literature. With the rise of the New Critics in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, scholars began looking at the literary text as a cultural object—a living repository of tradition extending across ages and civilizations. This movement coincided with expanding post-World War II college populations and helped elevate literature’s place and prestige in university curricula. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, proponents of poststructuralist theory began questioning the traditional literary canon and accepted hierarchies: Why, for instance, should lyric poetry be regarded as worthy of literary study, when comic books weren’t? Couldn’t we learn important things about contemporary culture from native American storytelling traditions as well as Italian opera? Practically speaking, this has meant that while college English departments still teach courses in Shakespeare and James Joyce, the sense of a highly exclusive canon of “great writers” is much diminished, and more kinds of literature are fair game for scholarly inquiry.