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Approaching English Literature

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Jeff Clapp

on 18 September 2014

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Transcript of Approaching English Literature

A definition
Literature is
art made of language
creates representations
which are
not facts
but which imply

Origins of "Literature"
My definition of literature is almost value-neutral.

It is much more value-neutral than earlier definitions of literature have been.

In fact, the invention of literature—what Terry Eagleton called the “event of literature,” in Hawk’s lecture--was a moment around 1800 when many people began to suggest that literature could be a kind of replacement for religious doctrines.

Example: Schiller, on The Aesthetic Education of Man, 1793.

The canon is the group of literary works which have been approved by authorities for reading, study, and interpretation in institutions like HKIEd.

This is not an official list, but rather an unofficial process by which works and authors are chosen, unchosen, remembered, and forgotten, by people like me. And you!

In this class, we will read canonical literature. But we will also play a role in making, and keeping, some literature "canonical."

Culture and the Canon
For a long time, everybody would have told you that the works in the "canon" are there because they are the best ones.

It turns out to be much more complicated than that. The reasons people give for including works in the canon are incredibly varied, and often incompatible.

Like other parts of "culture," the canon is an argument that will go on forever.

Redefining Culture

The idea of "culture as power" however, has changed. In 1973 Clifford Geertz published a book called "The Interpretation of Culture in which he used principles of interpretation like those that had been used for literature and other arts, on cultural behaviors—the famous example is cockfighting.

Cockfighting, like all other complex human behaviors, reveals a great deal about human relationships--how we get along together in the world, how we organize our lives.

look, a treasure
Just like John Keats Approaching Homer

Approaching English Literature
When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learned astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

What is Interpretation?
When I say “interpretation,” I mean something simple.

Interpretation takes things apart to see how they work. The first step is “analysis”—taking apart. The second step is “synthesis”—putting back together.

We are going to look at works of literature just like they are little machines made of language.

Our goal is to find out the background information we need in order to understand how these machines work, and then to observe and record our understand of how they work. When you write that understanding down, you have produced an interpretation.


We are going to assume that all the words in a work of literature are intended, that they are meaningful parts of the work which are there for a reason.

A full interpretation would explain how all the words of the literary work contribute to its meaning. This would be very, very boring.

The analogy with the machine will help, again. Imagine the inside of a computer. There are dozens of wires, and circuits, and other electrical parts. It would be very boring to explain how each of them works, and we won’t ever try to explain how every word in a piece of literature works.

But we could if we wanted to.

So, today let’s just begin simply by identifying a few literary terms—the biggest, most general terms. These are the terms for literary genres—the biggest categories of machines.

Genre simply means “kind.” What kinds of literature are we going to study in this course?

-short story

The first thing to notice about this list is that it’s a little weird. The first thing to notice is that one of these kinds is only sort of made of language. In fact, drama is also made of images, the images of people talking on a stage. We are going to read plays on paper—but that is a little odd, basically—plays were made to be performed. So this is a question about “literature” and the relationship of literature to images and performance.

Genre 2
The second thing to notice is that there is a strange division of Fiction into categories, according to length. Are there not shorter and longer poems? In fact, yes, there are—but not really any more. The word for a very long poem, a poem as long as a novel, is “epic,” but in fact the “epic” never really got going in English literature. Aside from a few famous examples, almost nobody has written “epic” in English since the 1600s. It is a dead genre in English.

This should suggest something that you might not have thought of—that genres have histories. In fact, just like works and authors, genres have passed into and out existence, and into and out of canonization. The genres that got bundled into “literature,” when literature was invented around 1800, were all of different ages and at different stages of canonization. And in fact, the genre of the “short story” was brand-new at that time.

Genre 3
The word genre, is also applied at a more specific level than the one we just described.

Within drama, there are tragedy and comedy.
Within poetry, there are lyric and epic.
Within fiction, there are short stories, novellas, and novels.

But the word genre is used at even more specific levels than these. And there is a problem—these genres can exist in drama, or poetry, or fiction.

They include satire, farce, picaresque, elegy, melodrama, folktale.

There are also a set of modern and contemporary categories, also sometimes called genres, which were invented in fiction but which now apply primarily to film: romance, horror, action thriller, science fiction.

Genre 4
There are also constant attempts to blend, combine, juxtapose, or simply invent new genres. For example, in the 19th century many poets started writing poems that did not have short lines, but instead ran over just like stories. These are called “prose poems.” And now there is a genre, called “flash fiction,” which attempts to tell very, very short stories, like this one:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Recently, many writers have been using a new generic idea, the idea of an “erasure.” In an erasure, the writer takes an existing piece of language, and removes some of the words, leaving another meaning which is—somehow—related to the previous piece of language. Like this:


So you see that the term “genre” is quite difficult. This is why many literature and culture studies scholars prefer to unify their fields of inquiry not by trying to describe what kinds of things it studies (as a zoologists studies animals, as opposed to botanists, who study plants), but instead by the methods of interpretation they use.

This immediately posed the question of what literature could serve that purpose—which works would have the same effects as religious doctrines.

And it also posed an even more difficult question, which is how works might have those effects.

The most popular single idea at the time, and even now, is that somehow literature “implies truths,” rather than stating them, and that somehow implying (as in the idea of "subtext") is better than stating.

It's like getting a child to take a pill, by putting the pill in honey.
Origins 2
There have been many, many theories of what kinds of truths literature conveys, and how literature conveys truths—theories that are beyond the scope of this class.

Our goals are somewhat simpler: to see what kinds of literature there are, to learn what terms literary critics use to describe literature, and to begin to learn how to write literary criticism yourselves.
Origins 3

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer by John Keats
We can think of this poem
as a model for the kinds
of experiences literature
can offer--
like discovering a new planet
finding a new world.
in Action
An excellent example is "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary" by Justin Green (1972).
Reasons Binky Brown is Here with Us Today

But books can also be forgotten. I think this book, which has been read for decades by millions of schoolchildren in the U.S., is now losing out to MAUS.
Whitman contrasts
scientific, school knowledge with "real experiences."

Many definitions of literature use similar contrasts.

These are not value-neutral definitions.
For a long time, culture was defined as “knowledge of the best that had been known and thought in the world” (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1867). People sought to become “cultured,” and they used their knowledge to identify other “cultured” people.

Most people do not use the word “culture” in this way anymore, but the process of becoming “cultured” and using “cultural knowledge” to get and maintain status and power is still entirely active. You should use this class for this purpose.
Culture as Power
I work for the HKIEd “Literature and Cultural Studies” department.

This title implies that these two things are related, but not identical.

The title is a kind of compromise. People have very different opinions about how literature relates to culture, and vice-versa.

Even the four teachers of this class have different opinions about how literature and culture are related.
Literature and Cultural Studies
Few people have written about cockfighting, but many, many people have written about media like film and videogames. Many people have also applied interpretive methods to advertising, fashion, architecture, and other parts of the human world.

I am in favor of all of this. I think that interpretive methods apply very well to those areas and I would encourage you to use what you learn in this class to interpret other parts of your experience.
Interpreting Everything
The Fish
By Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
"The Fish"
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