A Little History of Literature: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 18th, 2014 by bobmorris

A Little HistoryA Little History of Literature
John Sutherland
Yale University Press (2013)

Brilliant perspectives on a wealth of (mostly British) authors and their works

Since childhood, I have cherished books as “magic carpets” by which to visit human experiences that would not have otherwise been accessible to me. The ten-year siege of Troy, for example, and then Odysseus’ ten-year return voyage to Ithaca as well as the Italian Renaissance (and Dante), the Age of Elizabeth (and Shakespeare), and more recently, Hawthorne’s New England, Dickens’ London, Twain’s Mississippi, and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

More often than not, I am reading and/or re-reading three or four books at any one time and that was the situation recently when accompanying two of my favorite authors, Michael Dirda and John Sutherland, during their explorations of great literature in this book as well as in Dirda’s On Conan Doyle (2012) and Classics for Pleasure (2007).

This is not a definitive or even rigorous analysis of each of the major British authors and their major works. Rather, Sutherland shares what is of greatest interest to him. He also discusses transitions from literary one period to the next as well as recurring themes, correlations, and legacies. His selections and comments are subjective and that suits me just fine. In some cases I was revisiting old friends such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, and Orwell. In other instances, he shares his perspectives on literary subjects that range from “Fabulous Beginnings: Myth” and “The Book of Books: The King James Bible” to “Under the Blankets: Literature and Children” and “Magical Realisms: Borges, Grass, Rushdie, and Márquez.” Given Sutherland’s stated purposes, the scope of coverage is far greater than the depth of commentary.

Here is Dallas there is a Farmer’s Market near the downtown area at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now share a few brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Sutherland’s style:

o “British literature is founded on this 3,182-line Anglo-Saxon poem [i.e. Gilgamesh]. It was probably composed in the eight century, drawing on old fables that went even further back into the mists of time. It was brought to England in some earlier form by invading European, then it was recited orally for centuries with countless variations, before being transcribed by an unknown monk (who made some tactful Christian insertions) in the tenth century.” (Page 15)

o “The great epics [e.g. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf] are still highly enjoyable to read, although mot of us will be obliged to read them at one remove, in translation. In many ways, epics are literary dinosaurs. They once dominated, by virtue of sheer size, but now they belong in the museum of literature. We can still admire them, as we admire the other mighty works of our national ancestors, but, sadly, we seem no longer able to make them.” (19)

o “In our respect for the Authorized Version [i.e. of the King James Bible] — the only true great work of literature in English for which we can thank a king — we should never forget William Tyndale. He is an author of equal standing, one might claim, with the greatest in his language. And that does not exclude Shakespeare.” (53)

o The Romantic movement “burned too hot to last long. Effectively it was burned out in Britain by the time of [Sir Walter] Scott’s death in 1832 and the country’s own ‘quiet’ political revolution, the First Reform Bill. But Romanticism changed, forever, the ways in which literature was written and read. It bequeathed to the writers who came after, and who cared to use it, a new power. Not bright stars, but burning stars.” (100)

o Despite passage of the Obscene Publications Art in 1959 that allowed publication of “works of art” such as Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’ Lover, “The fight again censorship in the world continues, as every issue of the London-based journal, Index on Censorship, testifies. It is a constant battle. Literature, literary history demonstrates, can do great thing under oppression, in chains. or in exile. It can even, like the phoenix, rise from the flames of its own destruction. It is a glorious vindication of the human spirit that it can do so.” (167)

o Final thoughts: “What’s the worst thing that could happen in the future? If readers were to become swamped — buried under a mass of information they could not process into knowledge — that would be very bad. But I remain hopeful, and with good reason. Literature, that wonderfully creative product of the human mind, will, in whatever new forms and adaptations it takes, forever be a part of our lives, enriching our lives. I say ours, but I should say yours — and your children’s.” (266)

Sutherland devotes an entire chapter, the sixteenth, to Charles Dickens (1812-187) and suggests “five good arguments why modern readers should also see that Dickens is the greatest ever novelist. First is that Dickens was, over the course of his long writing career, uniquely inventive…The second reason for Dickens’s greatness is that he was the first novelist not merely to make children the heroes and heroines of his fiction (as in Oliver Twist) but also to make his reader appreciate how vulnerable and easily bruised a child is, and how unlike an adult’s is the child’s-view of the world…He was to become a mirror of his changing age — the third reason we consider him a great writer. No novelist has been more sensitive to his own times than Dickens…Our fourth point. It was not simply the fact that Dickens’s fiction reflected social change. He was the first novelist to appreciate that fiction could change the world…Lastly, and most importantly, one of the things that gives Dickens’s novels their everlasting appeal is his honest belief in the essential goodness of people. Us, that is.”

As indicated earlier, given Sutherland’s stated purposes, the scope of his coverage is far greater than the depth of commentary. In my opinion, the primary purpose of the material is to provide what can be viewed as a “map” that can help each reader to determine the nature and extent of her or his subsequent exploration. If books are magic carpets, and I believe they are, we still need magicians to identify possible destinations. Thank you so much, John Sutherland!

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John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London. He has taught students at every level and is the author and editor of more than twenty books. His most recent book, the popular Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, was also published by Yale University Press in the US, and has earned widespread acclaim. I urge you to check out his Amazon page.

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