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Literary 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 continuities—an "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.


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, 1989–2001. 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

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLiterary History - The Religious Imperative, Enlightenment And Romanticism, From Masterpiece To Text, Guilt And Contrition, Contemporary Dilemma