Literary History and the Concept of Literature

Topics: Literature, History of literature, Literary criticism Pages: 11 (3857 words) Published: May 20, 2013
Literary history and the concept of literature


From the 1970s onwards, much has been said about the writing of history and literary history that has cast doubt on its intellectual credibility. For example, Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) included an influential analysis of the metaphorical foundations of 19th century history writing. In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard criticized grand narratives in La Condition postmoderne (The Postmodern Condition), and in 1992 David Perkins presented a whole array of sceptical epistemological and methodological arguments directed against literary history in Is Literary History Possible?.[i] The questioning of literary history has not however resulted in the abandonment of large-scale literary-historical projects, rather it has inspired attempts to base such ventures on better designs and better foundations. Not least, many new ideas about the field have been put forward in connection with the preparation of two major works of literary history sponsored by the ICLA. It is also natural to point to two theoretical publications from 2002: the collection of essays, Rethinking Literary History, edited by Linda Hutcheon and Mario J. Valdés, and Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer’s brief presentation of the ideas behind a history of literary cultures in East-Central Europe.[ii] The Swedish project “Literature and Literary History in Global Contexts”, which was started in 1998 and will terminate in 2004, focuses specifically on some theoretical problems associated with the writing of literary history. We who participate come, mostly, from various fields within oriental studies or from comparative literature. Since the project is sponsored by the Swedish Research Council we all work, or once worked, at various Swedish universities. One of the special features of the project is the interest devoted to world histories of literature, a genre where the general problems of literary history become especially visible and acute. (I shall return to this perhaps unfamiliar genre in a moment.) Three important cruces in connection with world histories of literature have been singled out for special discussion within the project: (i) the understanding of the notion of literature, (ii) the understanding of genres, and (iii) the understanding of interactions between literary cultures. These three sets of issues will be made the subject of four volumes of literary-historical studies and theoretical reflections, and these volumes will represent the main concrete outcome of the project. In this paper, I shall concentrate on the first of the questions, about the notion of literature. I shall say a few words about the concept of literature itself, point out some of the difficulties that it occasions in a world history of literature, and conclude with a brief discussion of how such problems may be approached and dealt with.


In a sense, of course, there are very many concepts of literature: if every nuance is taken into account, it may well be the case that each person has their own. Yet if, conversely, one looks at the situation very broadly, one can say that there is an everyday concept of literature in Western culture which is widely shared. That concept came into being in the course of the 18th century. Before that, no exact counterpart to our present concept of literature existed either in Western culture or elsewhere, and the distinction between imaginative literature and non-fiction was not of primary importance in the classification of texts. Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft have given a concise and clarifying account of how earlier cultures thought about texts and their basic divisions.

As long as no more than a few written works are in circulation in a given society, all texts are more or less equally important and valuable. If there is a dramatic increase in the number of writings, with a corresponding differentiation in their content and character, the texts are...
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