Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Literature, as viewed 100 years ago

I want to return once again to the New Century Book of Facts, which a hundred years ago was a popular one-volume reference book. It was the equivalent of what the World Almanac became later in the 20th century and what Wikipedia is today. This time I will mention some things that caught my eye as I leafed through the section of the book devoted to literature.

There is quite a bit about literature in the Grammar chapter of the book, as I mentioned last time, and many pages of the Biography chapter are devoted to writers, but the Literature chapter gives 115 small-print pages to literature alone. One finds a summary of the literature from many of the world's nations, a summary of plots from many great literary works, a dictionary of pseudonyms, a dictionary of mythology, book reviews and a list of suggested books for a family library, among other things.

George Eliot
Of particular interest to me is what the book's editors have to say about certain writers, and how their assessments jive with how those same writers are viewed today. About George Eliot, for example, the book says her Scenes from Clerical Life is "considered by some critics her masterpiece." Yet the Wikipedia article about this early book of stories by Eliot says it "has been interpreted mainly in relation to Eliot's later works." I don't recall ever even seeing a copy of Scenes from Clerical Life, while novels like Middlemarch, Adam Bede and Silas Marner are easy to find and still highly regarded.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is called "the only truly literary classic which America produced before the nineteenth century." In the American literature classes I took in college, Franklin's book was the only thing we studied from before 1800, so perhaps this opinion still holds. As for the early 19th century, "the very names of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe mark this era as the most important in American literature." This was written early in the 20th century, but it is conceivable that that opinion remains valid.

The reference book lumps Herman Melville with Richard Henry Dana Jr. as "writers of our best books of adventure." I suppose Moby-Dick can be viewed as an adventure story, but it seems much more than that today. Mark Twain is barely mentioned, except as "probably the one American writer who enjoys a world-wide fame." There is no mention of anything he wrote. (There is much more about Twain in the Biography section.) Meanwhile the book mentions Edward Eggleston, George W. Cable, Mary Noailles Murfee and Harold Frederic, among other writers of the same era who are rarely read today and whose names few of us even recognize.

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