It’s one thing to devour some of the greatest works in English literature (as in ``I came, I read, I conquered’’); it’s quite another to understand why fiction enhances our appreciation of the world like nothing else can.
Thanks to John Sutherland’ delightful new book ``A Little History of Literature’’ , the reader is brought on a literary whirlwind, from the ancient Greek myths to the origins of street theater (mystery plays in England) to the rise of the novel and explosion of the printing industry, while learning along the way, the genesis, back stories, and intricacies of many of the most seminal works in English literature.
In discussing the history of literature, Sutherland casts a wide net: in addition to peering behind the curtain of the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Dickens, Defoe, Austen, the war poets etc., he clears a path in his 266 page book to discuss our guilty pleasures and pot boilers, such as through ``50 Shades of Grey’’ and the ``Da Vinci Code.’’
From the outset, Sutherland addresses one of the most fundamental mysteries of literature: what’s the real point of literature, many ask, especially when you don’t agree with what you’re reading? ``Literature’’, Sutherland emphasizes in his introduction, ``enlarges our minds and sensibilities to the point where we can better handle complexity.’’ And the better we learn to read, Sutherland says, the more human we become.
While we may not agree with the protectionism and trade laws laid out in the Corn Laws of 19th century England, only by reading Thomas Hardy, however, do we better appreciate the crippling economic hardship many counties, particularly the southwestern counties of Britain had to endure as a result of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which led to the eruption of international trade.
A Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London, Sutherland is no stranger to presenting literature in a compelling and enlightening way. He’s authored 20 books, including: ``Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives'', ``Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers'' and ``The Dickens Dictionary: An A-Z of England's Greatest Novelist.''
Though literature, which literally means that which comes to us in the form of ``letters’’, is on the surface imaginary and not real, just a slow brew of the author’s active imagination, some of the best works of literature reveal more about an author’s personal life than we might think.
Never is this more true than in the works of poet and playwright William Shakespeare, considered the greatest writer in the English language. It’s in Shakespeare plays, Sutherland points out, that we discover intimations of his own unhappy marriage as portrayed by a battalion of cold, difficult, and domineering women. In particular, Adrianna in the ``Comedy of Errors’’, the cursing Constance in ``King John’’, and Kate in the ``Taming of the Shrew’’, are all embodiments of Shakespeare’s own wife, Anne Hathaway, scholars maintain. And through Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sutherland argues, Shakespeare’s possible bi-sexuality comes into sharper focus.
Sutherland additionally points out that we learn more about Charles Dickens in ``Great Expectations’’ and David Copperfield’’ than we do than in the multitude of biographies that have been written about the English writer and social critic since his death. In both of those classic works, we learn of Dickens dark, unhappy childhood with the separation of his family, leaving him lonely, rejected, and a great many times, humiliated. Though Dickens might have been writing fictional characters, his true to life depictions of the slums and squalid conditions for the poor in 19th century London led to profound social reforms. The lack of adequate sewage system (described by Dickens in ``Bleak House’’) and street cleaning in 19th century London, resulting in cholera and typhoid fever, together with the ``Great Stink’’, the polluted smell discharged from the Thames River, depicted so well by Dickens in ``Hard Times’’ and ``Oliver Twist’’ were instrumental in forcing the British Parliament in 1858 to take some action to bring the crisis to a halt.
Some of the best literature through the centuries, moreover, are those rare books that are so true to life that readers have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. When Daniel Defoe, the father of English journalism, wrote Robinson Crusoe, many were fooled into believing, for example, that there really was a Robinson Crusoe who spent 28 days in isolation. Jonathan Swift’s ``Gulliver’s Travels ‘’ certainly a classic in English literature, besides its satire on human nature through travel reporting-is a prime example of a work which merges the real with the bizarre to give readers a unique perspective of their own society and culture.
The most charming slices of Sutherland’s book is the way he sprinkles little, lesser known nuggets on our plates. Jane Austen wrote merely for her own amusement; she hid her writing under an ink blotter when she thought someone was coming to her door. And when Margaret Mitchell’s finished ``Gone With the Wind’’, she left the transcript in a cupboard for six years, where it probably would have remained if not for a quirk of fate when an agent came through town in 1935 and the young journalist happened to mention what she had written while laid-up in bed after breaking her ankle.
The reader to Sutherland’s literary survey is presented with a short snappy overview of the copyright laws; along with the how the reading public in the 18th century became such a robust force as urbanization and growing prosperity began to take hold. But by far, the most potent boost to reading and literature came with emergence of the lending public libraries, and the development of the cheap book or the paperback in the 19th century. And in 1891-in America-the introduction of the best-selling list went a long way in making literature an integral part of the cultural landscape. The term ``best-seller’’, by the way, wouldn’t be used until 1912.
Though the bulk of ``A Little History of Literature’’ deals with the heavy hitters of English literature, particularly in the 19th century, Sutherland doesn’t give short shrift to American novelists as when he discusses how Puritanism became the foundation stone of American Literature in the 20th century. According to Sutherland, if the 19th century was Britain’s golden age of literature, the 20th century was America’s. Neither does Sutherland neglect the flood of multiculturalism as the ``winds of change’’ tore through Britain through the influential writings of Salman Rushdie, Monica Alie, Zadie Smith, the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri and post-colonial writer V.S. Naipaul, from the British West Indies.
Sutherland informs us that there are close to two million volumes classified as ``Literature’’ at the British Library and the American Library of Congress. The average literate person reads 600 works of fiction in an adult lifetime. ``A large portion of the 600’’ Sutherland maintains ``is crud.’
Thankfully, Sutherland treated readers not to the crud, but to the crown jewels of literature.
November 26, 2013