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The Historical Interpretation of Literature – by Edmund Wilson

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Historical Criticism and Social Change

In the excerpts below, Edmund Wilson presents his thoughts on what it means to understand literature in its “historical” aspects, that is “its social, economic and political aspects.”

He notes that this tradition of criticism began during the Enlightenment and developed during the subsequent centuries. He begins by describing other prominent traditions of criticism then focuses on the historical one, which is a key critical tradition, especially its more progressive and revolutionary elements, overviewed and explored by this site.

At the end of the article (and the excerpts here) he touches on how literature, along with “all our intellectual activity” may help bring about a better world, in its “attempt to give a meaning to our experience – that is, to make life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them.” This weblog is basically geared toward this end, and is otherwise related to “understanding things” in order to “make it easier to survive and get around among them” especially to change conditions of life for the better, especially for the many currently in great need. It might be noted too that at this perilous point in human history, the survival of the human species is ever more seriously threatened, as some authors have remarked for decades now. In capacities professional and otherwise, those in the field of literature, given its largely though not entirely social, economic, and political nature, have great opportunity to do much toward addressing these urgent issues.

Edmund Wilson, “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” 1940, later published in The Triple Thinkers:

“I want to talk about the historical interpretation of literature – that is, about the interpretation of literature in its social, economic and political aspects.

“To begin with, it will be worth while to say something about the kind of criticism which seems to be furthest removed from this. There is a comparative criticism which tends to be non-historical. The essays of T. S. Eliot, which have had such an immense influence in our time, are, for example, fundamentally non-historical. Eliot sees, or tries to see, the whole of literature, so far as he is acquaninted with it, spread out before him under the aspect of eternity. He then compares the work of different periods and countries, and tries to draw from it general conclusions about what literature out to be. He understands, of course, that our point of view in connection with literature changes, and he has what seems to me a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past as something to which new works are continually added, and which is not thereby merely increased in bulk but modified as a whole – so that Sophocles is no longer precisely what he was for Aristotle, or Shakespeare what he was for Ben Jonson or for Dryden or for Dr. Johnson, on account of all the later literature that has intervened between them and us. Yet at every point of this continual accretion, the whole field may be surveyed, as it were, spread out before the critic. The critic tries to see it as God might; he calls the books to a Day of Judgement. And, looking at things in this way, he may arrive at interesting and valuable conclusions which could hardly be reached by approaching them in any other way. Eliot was able to see, for example – what I believe had never been noticed before – that the French Symbolist poetry of the nineteenth century had certain fundamental resemblances to the English poetry of the age of Donne. Another kind of critic would draw certain historical conclusions from these purely esthetic findings, as the Russian D. S. Minsky did; but Eliot does not draw them.

“Another example of this kind of non-historical criticism, in a somewhat different way and on a somewhat different plane, is the work of the late George Saintsbury. Saintsbury was a connoisseur of wines; he wrote an entertaining book on the subject. And his attitude toward literature, too, was that of the connoisseur. He tastes the authors and tells you about the vintages; he distinguishes the qualities of the various wines. His palate was as fine as could be, and he possessed the great qualification that he knew how to take each book on its own terms without expecting it to be some other book and was thus in a positions to appreciate a great variety of kinds of writing. He was a man of strong social prejudices and peculiarly intransigent political views, but, so far as it is humanly possible, he kept them out of his literary criticism. The result is on of the most agreeable and most comprehensive commentaries on literature that have ever been written in English. Most scholars who have read as much as Saintsbury do not have Saintsbury’s discriminating taste. Here is a critic who has covered the whole ground like any academic historian, yet whose account of it is not merely a chronology but a record of fastidious enjoyment. Since enjoyment is the only thing he is looking for, he does not need to know the causes of things, and the historical background of literature does not interest him very much.

“There is, however, another tradition of criticism which dates from the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the year 1725, the Neapolitan philosopher Vico published La Scienz Nuova, a revolutionary work on the philosophy of history, in which he asserted for the first time that the social world was certainly the work of man, and attempted what is, so far as I know, the first social interpretation of a work of literature. This is what Vico says about Homer:[...]

“You see that Vico has here explained Homer in terms both of historical period and geographical origin. The idea that human arts and institutions were to be studied and elucidated as the products of the geographical and climatic conditions in which the people who created them lived, and of the phase of their social development through which they were passing at the moment, made great progress during the eighteenth century. There are traces of it even in Dr. Johnson, that most orthodox and classical of critics…. And by the eighties of the eighteenth century Herder, in his Ideas on the Philosophy of History, was writing of poetry that it was a kind of ‘Proteus among the people, which is always changing its form in response to the languages, manners, and habits, to the temperaments and climates, nay even to the accents of different nations.’ He said – what could still seem startling even so late as that – that ‘language was not a divine communication, but something men had produced themselves.’ In the lectures on the philosophy of history that Hegel delivered in Berlin in 1822-23, he discussed the national literatures as expressions of the societies which had produced them-societies which he conceived as great organisms continually transforming themselves under the influence of a succession of dominant ideas.

“In the field of literary criticism, this historical point of view came to its first complete flower in the work of the French critic Taine, in the middle of the nineteenth century. The whole school of historian-critics to which Taine belonged – Michelet, Renan, Sainte-Beuve – had been occupied in interpreting books in terms of their historical orgins. But Taine was the first of these to attempt to apply such principles systematically and on a large scale in a work devoted exclusively to literature. In the Introduction to his History of English Literature, published in 1863, he made his famous pronouncement that works of literature were to be understood as the upshot of three interfusing factors: the moment, the race and the milieu. Taine thought he was a scientist and a mechanist, who was examining works of literature from the same point of view as the chemist’s in experimenting with chemical compounds. But the difference between the critic and the chemist [...]

“If he had really been the mechanist that he thought he was, his work on literature would have had little value. The truth was that Taine loved literature for its own sake – he was at his best himself a brilliant artist – and he had very strong moral convictions which give his writing emotional power. His mind, to be sure, was an analytic one, and his analysis, though terribly oversimplified, does have and explanatory value. Yet his work is what we call creative. Whatever he may say about chemical experiments, it is evident when he writes of a great writer that the moment, the race and the milieu have combined, like the three sounds of the chord in Browning’s poem about Abt Vogler, to produce not a fourth sound but a star.

“To Taine’s set of elements was added, dating from the middle of the century, a new element, the economic, which was introduced into the discussion of historical phenomena mainly by Marx and Engels. The non-Marxist critics themselves were at the time already taking into account the influence of the social classes. In his chapters on the Norman conquest of England, Taine shows that the difference between the literatures produced respectively by the Normans and by the Saxons was partly the difference between a ruling class, on the one hand, and a vanquished and repressed class, on the other. And Michelet, in his volume on the Regency, which was finished the same year that the History of English Literature appeared, studies the Manon Lescaut of the Abbé Prévost as a document representing the point of view of the small gentry before the French Revolution. But Marx and Engels derived the social classes from the way that people made or got their livings – from what they called the methods of production; and they tended to regard these economic processes as fundamental to civilization.

“The Dialectical Materialism of Marx and Engels was not really so materialistic as it sounds [...] Their theory of the relation of works of literature to what they called the economic base was good deal less simple than Taine’s theory of the moment, the race and the milieu. They thought that art, politics, religion, philosophy and literature belonged to what they called the superstructure of human activity; but they saw that the practitioners of these various professions tended also to constitute social groups, and that they were always pulling away from the kind of solidarity based on economic classes in order to establish a professional solidarity of their own. Furthermore, the activities of the superstructure could influence one another, and they could influence the economic base. It may be said of Marx and Engels in general that, contrary to the popular impression, they were tentative, confused and modest when it came down to philosophical first principles, where a materialist like Taine  was cocksure. Marx once made an attempt to explain why the poems of Homer were so good when the society that produced them was from his point of view – that is, from the point of view of its industrial development-so primitive; and this gave him a good deal of trouble. If we compare his discussion of this problem with Vico’s discussion of Homer, we see that the explanation of literature in terms of philosophy of social history is becoming, instead of simpler and easier, more difficult and complex.

[...] “The insistence that the man of letters should play a political role, the disparagement of works of art in comparison with political action, where thus originally no part of Marxism. They only became associated with it later. This happened by way of Russia, and it was due to the special tendencies in that country that date from long before the Revolution or the promulgation of Marxism itself. In Russia there have been very good reasons why the political implications of literature should particularly occupy the critics. The art of Pushkin itself, with its marvelous power of implication, had certainly been partly created by the censorship of Nicholas I, and Pushkin set the tradition for most of the great Russian writers that followed him. Every play, every poem, every story, must be a parable of which the moral is implied. If it were stated, the censor would suppress the book as he tried to do with Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, where it was merely a question of the packed implications protruding a little too plainly. Right down through the writings of Chekhov and up almost to the Revolution, the imaginative literature of Russia presents the peculiar paradox of an art that is technically objective and yet charged with social messages. In Russia under the Tsar, it was inevitable that social criticism should lead to political conclusions, because the most urgent need form the point of view of any kind of improvement was to get rid of the tsarist regime. Even the neo-Christian moralist Tolstoy, who pretended to be non-political, was to exert a subversive influence [...] Even after the Revolution had destroyed the tsarist government, this state of things did not change [...]

“In my view, all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience – that is, to make life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them [...]

“And this brings us back to the historical point of view. The experience of mankind on the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered [...]“


See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini


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About tc

Tony Christini is an author and cofounder of Liberation Lit.

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