Instead of literary history, literature as history

Several posts here recently have dealt with the struggle to return literature study and literary criticism to some semblance of rationality.

It’s a trend that I applaud, as distressed as I’ve been by the theory extremes that have dominated academia for decades.

Alongside quantitative analysis (Franco Moretti on Hamlet), neuropsychology research into pattern recognition (Brian Boyd on Lolita), and Theory of Mind as a basis for analysis (Lisa Zunshine on Mrs. Dalloway and others), we now have the suggestion that a useful and realist approach to literature is to treat it as a source of real history.

In “Literature Brings the Physical Past to Life,” on the Chronicle Review website August 20th, Scott Herring writes that “history gives us the facts, sort of, but from literary works we can learn what the past smelled like, sounded like, and felt like, the forgotten gritty details of a lost era.”

Herring lauds other rational approaches to literary studies as a good tactic in a time of fading public support for educational programs that, unlike Commerce and Engineering, are not “justified” by their economic potential. He writes with some derision that “at a time of contracting education budgets, the public is no longer willing to pay for courses titled ‘Bat[woman] and Cat[man]: Queering the Canonical Comix.'”

Herring suggests refocusing literary studies on the literature — not as an authoritarian pronouncement of DWM values, but as a nearly immediate source of real insight into the ways people lived in now inaccessible times. Literature, Herring writes, “brings us as close as we can come to reinhabiting the past.”

Not just learning facts about it, but getting under its skin, coming as close as possible to how it would have felt to you to live in that world. When someone becomes “lost” in a book, what’s typically meant in just this sort of virtual habitation. And when that book is a contemporary narrative of a specific time and place, that’s as close to real time travel as we’re likely ever to get.

You’d think that this would go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t. We live in an era in which we increasingly view “the past” only through the lens of contemporary video media, TV and popular movies, both of which are notorious for their willingness — in many cases, their eagerness — to sacrifice historical detail for special effects.

If you’ve yet to reach a certain age, and you dozed your way through those mandatory English classes, the ones that assigned those thick, old novels you never had time to read, then you’re unlikely to have experienced or appreciated being “lost” in a realistic past.

Oh, true, you may know The World of Warcraft with impressive intimacy; and you may well be highly conversant with the lives, environments, and values of your favourite community of vampires.

But this isn’t history, is it? No more than Lord of the Rings or Star Trek, to name two of my own favourite fantasy worlds of decades past, are history.

Herring uses the specific example of an unexpected conjunction between an old engine head and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to reinforce his point. When Herring’s grandfather sees a photo of the old car part, he recalls his own trip across the mountains and then the desert to the promised land of 1930’s California. Granddad recounts the  challenges of the trip, in a car that, although almost new, was mechanically inadequate to the heat:

“Cars were different then,” he explained. “On that Model B, the radiator was never big enough, and the water pumps were never big enough. The head cracked when they got hot. Mine got hot.” The Oldsmobile had suffered similarly. As engines heated, every moving part—camshaft, crankshaft, rods, bearings, rings, and all the rest—was stressed and finally warped in ways that spoiled the fine tolerances any engine requires.

How does this story relate to Steinbeck’s novel? Herring notes that the Joads’ across the Mojave has long been read as a symbolic passage:

Generations of high-school and college students have been told that these descriptions are (pause to write on the whiteboard) a literary allusion. The Joads are wandering through the desert of Sinai in search of the promised land. They are like the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, which is in another, bigger book called the Bible.

Herring takes a more direct route into the Joads’ narrative: “On that last afternoon with my grandfather, he took me to an alternate reality—alternate, but not made up. It was a reality of hardship, suffering, and endurance that we seem to have lost.”

Thanks partly to theory-driven distancing from the narrative itself, we have, Herring writes, “a hard time recognizing” the reality behind the story. Steinbeck’s novel is not “just” a work of literature — it’s a record of a past time:

The past is not another country; it is another life. The texture of daily living is different now than in the past, more different the further back we look. … Many details that once made up the daily round are lost to us because people considered them too trivial to write down. … Knowing the past means knowing what people carried in their pockets, what they did with their sewage, where their dogs slept. Those details may seem unimportant, but what they convey is not.

How do we make literature “relevant” again? Use it as an entry-point into the past, into real worlds that are no longer available directly.

It’s an idea that’s obvious, once you think of it, and I’m glad that Herring has pointed it out to us again.

2 thoughts on “Instead of literary history, literature as history

  1. And you Ron often taught this way too. I remember all your mini lessons to me on how to teach Lit 12 and I really came to appreciate how literature was history. A window into the nuances of the time a piece was written reveals so much about what was important and valued. Of course, it was often revealing only one level of society, the literate and therefore, the rich, but nonetheless still a realistic look at the past. Thank you for that lesson.

  2. Right on Herring! My belief is that creating children who read because of the love of it, is thanks to parents and teachers (like yourself) and other readers in their lives. These people help children to see, breath, taste and bring alive the past and the present. Whether it be Shakespeare, Shmucker, Woolf, Mistry or Atwood all create magical words that stimulate the imagination. I am all for stimulating the imagination! Not only in the written word but also in the stories told by our elders which in the telling shares their history. I appreciate that you brought Herring to our attention.

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