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Literature

The Modern Idea Of Literature

In 1777 Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was invited to compose critical essays for an edition of English poets, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400), then being prepared by London booksellers. Once the anthology—which was shortened to begin with the early seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley—was complete, Johnson's fifty-two introductions were published separately as Lives of the English Poets (1779–1781). In his portrait of John Milton, Johnson still used literature in the classical sense of learning or erudition, observing that the great poet "had probably more than common literature, as his son addresses him in one of his most elaborate Latin poems" (vol. 1, p. 85). But when introducing Cowley, Johnson gave the term a significance that would become central by the early twentieth century. Johnson described Thomas Sprat, Cowley's biographer, as "an author whose pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature" (vol. 1, p. 1). By the early nineteenth century, a period marked by the prominence of the entrepreneurial author-publisher Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), the idea that literature refers primarily to a particular kind of writing—imaginative—also meant that the word could signify a particular professional occupation. Isaac Disraeli (1766–1848), father of Benjamin Disraeli, used the word in this new, narrower sense when he wrote in 1823, "Literature, with us, exists independent of patronage or association" (vol. 2, p. 407). The primary modern meaning of literature—autonomous, professional, imaginative writing designed for a market economy—had emerged.

At almost the same time that literature was beginning to signify primarily the imaginative genres of poetry, fiction, and drama, two complementary semantic changes were occurring. The first is that the word was being used to designate the total body of writing defined by national (or at least linguistic) origin. Thus Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) published a book called Über die neuere deutsche Litteratur (On the more recent German literature) in 1767, and L'abbé Antoine Sabatier de Castres published a book called Les trois siècles de notre littérature (Three centuries of our literature) in 1772, which became Les trois siècles de la littérature française (Three centuries of French literature) in subsequent editions. In 1836 Robert Chambers (1802–1871) produced A History of English Language and Literature. Such texts both contributed and responded to a political sensibility in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that had begun to categorize cultural artifacts in national terms. By the late nineteenth century this way of looking at literature, and especially imaginative literature, would be normalized. The study of modern literature (as opposed to Greek and Latin) came to be used in the schools to standardize linguistic usage; to elevate the culture of populations with little access to classical learning; to produce social integration across the divisions of economic class; and to provide a basis for a national collective consciousness (Weber).

The second semantic change in the word literature is a reflection of the idea of "aesthetics" in the eighteenth century. Since antiquity, claims had been made that the arts, including poetry and drama, were rational and rule governed, quite despite their aura of divine inspiration. Both Aristotle and Horace, in different ways, made these claims. On the whole, so did neoclassical French critics of the seventeenth century such as Nicolas Boileau. With the third earl of Shaftesbury, and especially the version of his ideas found in Francis Hutcheson's Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1726), English moral philosophy based on the sentiments began to translate the older idea of "good taste" in terms of a specific, subjective "aesthetic intuition" present in both the "genius" of artistic creation and the perception of beauty. For Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, the sensation of the beautiful became nothing less than the path by which all the traditional antinomies of philosophy—subject versus object, innate ideas versus empirical learning, necessity versus contingency, reason versus passion—can be overcome. In Germany, with Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) and especially Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and his Critique of Judgment, the project emerges of a specific science or philosophy of beauty that emphasizes the disinterested and universal nature of the human response to beauty (Cassirer, pp. 275–360). The Greek word aesthēsis, which had covered a range of meanings, including sensation, perception, feeling, knowledge, and consciousness, came to be aesthetics, used exclusively to refer to our response to beauty. In the 1790s Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) wrote his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, which outlines a project for making the education of the aesthetic sensibility the central component of a wholesale moral and political reform of humanity. Along with the other arts, literature became a part of that project, though often the term poetry or poetics (as in Aristotle's treatise) was still used to denote the artfulness of literature. For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), lecturing on aesthetics in the 1820s, art evolves in human history from more material to less material forms, from architecture to sculpture to poetry, as it approaches the ideal of reason. But this means that poetry becomes the most elevated Romantic art form only by virtue of becoming pure sound: poetry is the least burdened by matter, that is, by written letters. It is as if the putative oral basis of literary art had for Hegel returned to become its highest form.

Along with the nationalizing of imaginative literature in the nineteenth century—a development that was the dominant institutional form of literary studies in the twentieth-century academy—two complementary ideas arose. The first is the idea of Weltliteratur (world literature) used by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) when commenting in 1827 on his translation of Torquato Tasso (1544–1595). It is a vague but visionary term suggested by the ideal of universal humanity promulgated during the French Revolution and embodied more ambiguously by Napoléon's subsequent attempt to "liberate" Europe, Asia, and the Middle East by force. The second is the notion of "comparative literature," which began to be used in the early nineteenth century, perhaps in imitation of concurrent scholarly movements, such as "comparative anatomy," "comparative philology," and other comparative enterprises in history, philosophy, and anthropology. Abel-François Villemain gave a course of lectures at the Sorbonne in the 1820s in which he used the term littérature comparée, and two German journals appeared later. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literatur (Journal of comparative literature), edited by Hugo von Meltzl de Lomnitz, was published between 1877 and 1888, and Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literaturgeschichte (Journal of comparative literary history), founded in 1866 by Max Koch, was published until 1910.

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