D. G. Myers earlier this week defended the use of literary history as an aide to the study of literature. Literary history is a shortcut to the advantages of wide reading and long experience, without which there is no good literary criticism, and without which one cannot begin to read anything with profit. He’s entirely right, but to admit that is to admit the limits of literature as an object of scientific scholarship.
Literary history works as an antidote to the dominance, in the undergraduate classroom, of New Criticism (named and championed by John Crowe Ransom and other southerners), which held that each word should be read closely with a mind towards its relation with the whole, and that nothing but the words of the text should guide a reader’s interpretation of it. Spin-off theories have replaced the sovereignty of the words with their own absolutisms, but, no matter the theory, professors have pointedly avoided teaching the literary context of the particular text, lest the innocence of the student’s imagination be tainted by suggestion. The reader is left to confront the text, like Francis Bacon’s inductive acolytes confront Nature, with nothing but curiosity, scepticism, and vast patience.
Literary criticism has always struggled to prove its rightful place at the table of the sciences. Ransom’s defense of close reading was a renewed effort to make literary scholarship scientific, by defining the scope of its study to that which uniquely belonged to literature and could not be found elsewhere. The outline of his ideas appears in his seminal essay from 1937, “Criticism, Inc.” It is suggestive that he offers the structures and linguistic tricks of poetry, as opposed to prose, as his prime example of the specific branches of knowledge which the critic ought to master. Close reading works better with poetry than with prose, since the working assumption of the critic, that every word is in an intricately balanced unity with the whole, holds up more often.
Since the beginning, English literature has been indebted to the study of classical literature and language, and for precision and breadth has never equalled it. The eighteenth century curriculum in England of the classical Greek and Latin literature was a model of education which cannot be replicated by the study of English. It was a synthesis of grammar, rhetoric, history, and ethics. Close reading sat alongside comparative literature, history, ethics, sociology as a profitable interpretative enterprise, in part because their knowledge of antiquity drew chiefly on the famous literature. Now that classical history has become scientific; that archeology, numismatics, the study of accumulated minor primary sources, etc. take up much more of the burden of historical inquiry, the famous primary texts are no longer quite so available as a vehicle for the transmission of humanistic values and the civilizing of the imagination and taste.
When the vernacular replaced the antiquities as the touchstone of a common culture, the study of English literature inherited the responsibility for transmitting that humanistic education. But it also inherited the same problem. Studying history and sociology through literature doesn’t get very far. The New Critics rejected that burden, devoting themselves purely to the text as an inherently interesting problem. Literary history goes the farthest one can go, now, to remedying the problem, by reincorporating the intellectual, cultural, political, and religious problems of the past back into the literature. It can become again the ground of humanistic education in the way that the antiquities once were. That, I think, is the natural home of literature. The science of literature serves that end, and not the other way round.