Literary Fashions

I think literary fashions change quite dramatically. Novels, the pinnacle of our literary invention, were once considered frivolous entertainments not worth the time serious readers. What was considered obscene in some eras are classics in others. Our lists of worthwhile reading have changed substantially over time.

Columbia’s entrance exam from 1898 looks to classics like Sir Roger de Coverley essays in The Spectator, Southey’s Life of Nelson, Carlyle’s “Essay on Burns,” Lowell’s “Vision of Sir Launfal,” Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with America,” De Quincey’s “The Flight of a Tartar Tribe,” and Tennyson’s “The Princess.”

Harvard‘s exam of 1869 includes Xenophon‘s Hellenica, Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Cicero’s letter On Friendship.

Thomas Jefferson outlines a classical education for his grandson Francis Wayles Eppes that includes Xenophon, Arrian, Demosthenes, Livy, Caesar, Sallust, Tacitus, Cicero, Horace, Terrence and Juvenal.

Looking at the 18th Century we find Jean Jacques Burlamaqui‘s The Principles of Natural and Political Law, Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, Orations of Cicero and Demosthenes, Jonathan Edwards’s Enquiry into the Freedom of the Will and Desiderius ErasmusColloquies.

Even with books that have been read in most eras, the abstracted qualities we are drawing from them changes over time, for example:

Xenophon was the most widely read Greek in the 19th century. He was read not so much for his views on democracy and political systems, his insightful history of the post-Peloponnesian war Mediterranean or his alternative view of Socrates and philosophical dialogue. What the 19th century reader found appealing about Xenophon was his grammar and prose style. For students at end of the 19th century Xenophon had become synonymous with tedious rote grammar lessons, who then rejected his original thought and insight.

Today we look at The Odyssey as an example of heroic bravery, steady perseverance in the face of adversity and inventive problem solving. Cicero (late Republic) praised Ulysses for his love of wisdom but Virgil (early Empire) found him false and heartless. Racine (17th Century) viewed him as a dangerous master of deceit and Dante (14th Century) puts him in penultimate circle of Hell for Fraud.

I think a text becomes “timeless” not because it conveys a universal meaning but rather is a vehicle for multiple meanings. It is fluid enough to change with time and fashion. It is sufficiently resonant that many different people in many different times and places will look to it and derive meaning that is relevant to them. The lessons we learn from Beowulf, The Iliad and the Bhagavad-Gita are almost certainly very different from their original purpose, but nevertheless of great importance to us.


~ by severalfourmany on February 5, 2013.

4 Responses to “Literary Fashions”

  1. Hey, I was just saying this over at Himadri’s! Except with poorer examples and weaker arguments.

    Your research reminds me of how badly read I am in Classical historians, especially. But the fashion has changed and they have receded.

  2. Indeed I agree and believe that to some extent what makes these works great is the varying meaning that folks of different periods find in these works.

    This is making me think of some criticism that I have read from Howard Bloom who takes the counter – view. He tends argue that the key to understanding a work, is to dig into the authors original meaning. He tends to be highly critical of those who attempt to impose modern or culturally different values to work.

    I tend to think that it is often useful and enlightening to approach a work from both of these directions.

    • Certainly, however Harold Bloom will only live so long. For Shakespeare and Dante to survive the next century and beyond they need to perform well under a variety of critical approaches, including many that Harold Bloom doesn’t like or agree with.

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