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The word literature can simply mean a body of published texts, as in, “Are you familiar with the literature on global warming?” In a more restrictive sense, it alludes to creative works of the imagination. Conventionally these are divided into poetry, drama, and fiction. This concept of literature is a relatively recent one, first used in the late eighteenth century.
The English word literature derives from the Latin litteratura, from littera (a letter of the alphabet). Most European languages—Romance, Germanic, and Slavic— have direct Latin cognates of similar meaning. Originally, literature in English signified knowledge of books, book learning, and familiarity with letters, that is, written works. Creative writing was termed poesy or poetry in English, irrespective of its form, from the Greek word for “to create.” The earliest forms of poesy or what we would now call literature were the oral narratives of preliterate cultures—myths and folktales—handed down in written form. These include the oldest known literary text, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (3000 BCE), ancient Egyptian tales from 2000 BCE, Indian poems in Sanskrit (such as the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata), and ancient Chinese poetry. Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey (eighth century BCE), and the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides (fifth century BCE) stand at the beginnings of the Western canon, or the body of literature generally accepted as worthy of study. Indeed, ideas of literary excellence were already present in the Dionysia festivals in Athens, when Greek playwrights competed for prizes. In a comedy that won first prize in 405 BCE, The Frogs, Aristophanes (c. 450–388 BCE) contrasted two preeminent tragedians—Aeschylus (525–456 BCE) and Euripides (c. 484–406 BCE)—clearly revealing the Athenians’ general familiarity with their dramas. Through attending epic or dramatic performances, a largely unschooled populace could be exposed to poesy or literature.
Some of the first Greek libraries were established to gather together accurate copies of the prize-winning dramas. The earliest known library—a collection of Babylonian clay tablets—dates from the twenty-first century BCE. Other ancient examples are the libraries at Nineveh (in modern Iraq), at Egyptian temples, and at the temple at Jerusalem, as well as the Hellenistic libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, established under royal patronage, and Roman libraries, both private and public. The famous Library of Alexandria, estimated at 500,000 scrolls, was joined to a research center (the Museion or Museum), encouraging the systematic study of philology, that is, language and letters. Literary commentary was already practiced in classical Greece; the best-known examples are those of Plato and Aristotle (fourth century BCE), followed in Roman times with Horace (65–8 BCE), Plutarch (c. 46–120 CE), and Pseudo-Longinus (first century CE), as well as the third-century Neoplatonist Plotinus, whose ideas would resound in the romantic era. The work of these ancient Greco-Roman libraries and commentators established crucial ideas of literary evaluation and the literary canon that would influence Renaissance and later scholarship.
“Poetic” works in verse and prose were produced from antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance without being considered literature. In Europe these included imaginative works in Greek and Latin, as well as later texts in the vernacular languages, such as the Norse, Irish, and Germanic epics (including the Old English poem Beowulf ), courtly love poems of medieval France, the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the tales of Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1313–1375), the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400), and the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The term literature first enters English in the late fourteenth century (according to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary) in the original sense of literacy or acquaintance with books.
It is not until the late eighteenth century, with such developments as the growth of the modern nation-state; the rise of printing, publishing, and literacy; and the move from aristocratic patronage to commercial support of writing, that literature came to signify a body of literary texts. In this general sense, literature includes creative writing (poetry, fiction, drama, and essays), popular narratives, and works produced by philosophers, historians, religious and social thinkers, travelers, and nature writers, as exemplified in standard literary histories or reference volumes like the Oxford Companion to American Literature. In the more restricted sense of imaginative literature, the definition alludes to what in French is called belles letters or “fine writing” (a term also sometimes used in English but now tinged with the dismissive meaning of light or artificial dabbling). Imaginative literature can be defined by its fictional and autotelic nature, the dominance of the aesthetic function within it, and its special use of language, which René Wellek (1903–1995) and Austin Warren (1899–1986) in Theory of Literature characterized as follows: “Poetic language organizes, tightens, the resources of everyday language, and sometimes does even violence to them, in an effort to force us into awareness and attention” ( 1978, p. 24). Complexity and appeal to generations of readers are also viable characteristics.
Aesthetics and Nationalism
The nineteenth century brought about an increasing emphasis on the aesthetic properties of literature and the rise of the field of literary criticism, independent of philosophy or rhetoric. The romantic poets fostered a sense of literature as the field of unique genius and stressed the aesthetic experience of reading. Literature was also increasingly seen as an important element in constructing a unified national consciousness and providing citizens with a sense of their cultural heritage, both through the training of students and through the accumulation of literary works in research libraries and their interpretation by specialists. Famously defining the critic’s object of study as “the best which has been thought and said in the world” in his Culture and Anarchy ( 1993, p. 190), Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) played an important role in making literature and literary criticism prominent in Anglo-American culture, vying with philosophy and religion as a way to reflect on the world.
In British and American colleges, the core curriculum was already heavily concentrated on the classics, the study of the languages and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome. English literature was introduced in the 1820s at London and other universities, followed much later in the century by Oxford, Cambridge, and American universities, aided by an influx of women entering college. The national literature was seen as offering a valuable unifying cultural tradition, both in Britain after the shock and disruptions of World War I (1914–1918), and in the United States after the Civil War (1861–1865) and massive waves of immigration in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Victorians produced a staggering array of novels, short stories, and poetry to feed a rapidly growing, increasingly literate and middle-class reading public. The realistic novel became the dominant literary mode in Western literature, with a growing tendency toward a split between lowbrow or popular fiction—due to a proliferation of new subgenres, such as the romance, the mystery, and science fiction—and highbrow literature, made up of critically approved fiction, poetry, and drama.
Modernist literature of the beginning decades of the twentieth century moved away from the realism and naturalism of the nineteenth century, toward experimentation, disruption of chronology and causality, and increasing complexity, a style more suited to developments in the twentieth century. Here T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) played a crucial role in elevating literature to a high art through his poetry and literary criticism, which helped develop the American formalist New Criticism and The Great Tradition (1948) school of F. R. Leavis (1895–1978) in Britain. This led to the mid-twentieth-century view, aptly summarized by Peter Widdowson, of high literature as “a select(ive) and valuable aesthetic and moral resource to replenish those living in the spiritual desert of a mass civilization” (1999, p. 59).
The Canon and Beyond
What is deemed of literary significance or high literature is to a large extent the purview of the national educational system, where academic critics establish the canon of works considered worthy of reading and study at the school and college level. The canon in its original meaning refers to the authoritative set of orthodox, established texts of the Christian church. The biblical canon excludes a number of texts deemed heretical, such as gnostic writings. Similar exclusionary policies have been seen in literary canonization, leading to postmodernist disruptions of the canon under the pressures of new authors and literary theories, including feminism, queer theory, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postcolonial studies. From the 1960s onward, the canon, long seemingly the domain of dead white males, was opened up to women, people of color, and other minorities. It was again in flux, with the emergence of these new writings and new genres, such as New Journalism or the nonfiction novel, as well as the self-reflective playfulness of postmodern fiction.
Literature is now increasingly in competition with film, television, and other mass media. Nevertheless, it is sustained by a huge publishing industry, bookselling businesses, the school and university systems, academic and public libraries, and the seemingly infinite resources of the Internet. In his study On Literature, J. Hillis Miller notes the crucial feature of creative writing: “A literary work is not, as many people assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality, but on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. This new world is an irreplaceable addition to the already existing one. A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver” (2002, p. 18). Although threatened by the visual culture of the twenty-first century, literature still retains its unique quality of being able to generate alternative realities through the use of words as signs without visible referents.
- Arnold, Matthew.  Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. Ed. Stefan Collini. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Baldick, 2004. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- Guillory, J 1990. Canon. In Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 233–249.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Hart, James , and Phillip W. Leininger, eds. 1995. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Miller, Hillis. 2002. On Literature. London: Routledge.
- Wellek, René, and Austin Warr  1978. Theory of Literature. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- Widdowson, Peter. Literature. London: Routledge.
- Williams, 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
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