A Little History of Literature

 

Lines from ‘The Waste Land’ by T.S. Eliot, from
Collected Poems
© Estate of T.S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. Three lines from ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath, from
Ariel
; copyright © 1963 by Ted Hughes, reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Lines from ‘Waking in the Blue’ by Robert Lowell, from
Collected Poems
; copyright 2003 by Harriet Lowell and Sheridan Lowell, reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

Illustrations by Sarah Young

 

Copyright © 2013 by John Sutherland

 

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers.

 

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Set in Minion by Yale University Press

Printed in Great Britain by TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Sutherland, John, 1938-

A little history of literature / John Sutherland.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-300-18685-7 (alk. paper)

1. Literature—History and criticism. I. Title.

PN511.S746 2013

809—dc23

2013024200

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

 

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Contents

1 What is Literature?

 

2 Fabulous Beginnings

M
YTH

3 Writing for Nations

E
PIC

4 Being Human

T
RAGEDY

5 English Tales

C
HAUCER

6 Theatre on the Street

T
HE
M
YSTERY
P
lays

7 The Bard

S
HAKESPEARE

8 The Book of Books

T
HE
K
ING
J
AMES
B
IBLE

9 Minds Unchained

T
HE
M
ETAPHYSICALS

10 Nations Rise

M
ILTON AND
S
PENSER

11 Who ‘Owns’ Literature?

P
RINTING
, P
UBLISHING AND
C
OPYRIGHT

12 The House of Fiction

 

13 Travellers' Tall Tales

D
EFOE
, S
WIFT AND THE
R
ISE OF THE
N
OVEL

14 How to Read

D
R
J
OHNSON

15 Romantic Revolutionaries

 

16 The Sharpest Mind

A
USTEN

17 Books for You

T
HE
C
HANGING
R
EADING
P
UBLIC

18 The Giant

D
ICKENS

19 Life in Literature

T
HE
B
RONTëS

20 Under the Blankets

L
ITERATURE AND
C
HILDREN

21 Flowers of Decadence

W
ILDE
, B
AUDELAIRE
, P
ROUST AND
W
HITMAN

22 Poets Laureate

T
ENNYSON

23 New Lands

A
MERICA AND THE
A
MERICAN
V
OICE

24 The Great Pessimist

H
ARDY

25 Dangerous Books

L
ITERATURE AND THE
C
ENSOR

26 Empire

K
IPLING
, C
ONRAD AND
F
ORSTER

27 Doomed Anthems

T
HE
W
AR
P
OETS

28 The Year that Changed Everything

1922 AND THE
M
ODERNISTS

29 A Literature of Her Own

W
OOLF

30 Brave New Worlds

U
TOPIAS AND
D
YSTOPIAS

31 Boxes of Tricks

C
OMPLEX
N
ARRATIVES

32 Off the Page

L
ITERATURE ON
F
ILM
, TV
AND THE
S
TAGE

33 Absurd Existences

K
AFKA
, C
AMUS
, B
ECKETT AND
P
INTER

34 The Poetry of Breakdown

L
OWELL
, P
LATH
, L
ARKIN AND
H
UGHES

35 Colourful Cultures

L
ITERATURE AND
R
ACE

36 Magical Realisms

B
ORGES
, G
RASS
, R
USHDIE AND
M
áRQUEZ

37 Republic of Letters

L
ITERATURE
W
ITHOUT
B
ORDERS

38 Guilty Pleasures

B
ESTSELLERS AND
P
OTBOILERS

39 Who's Best?

P
RIZES
, F
ESTIVALS AND
R
EADING
G
ROUPS

40 Literature in Your Lifetime… and Beyond

 

Index

CHAPTER
1

What is Literature?

Imagine that, like Robinson Crusoe, you are marooned for the rest of your days on a desert island. What one book would you most want to have with you? That is a question asked on one of the longest-running and most-loved programmes on BBC radio,
Desert Island Discs
. Broadcast also on the BBC's World Service, it is listened to across the globe.

The question is one of two that are put to that week's guest, after we have heard snatches of the eight pieces of music they would take to the island. The castaway is allowed one luxury – what will it be? Answers are usually very ingenious: at least a couple of guests have chosen cyanide pills, for instance, and another chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Then they are asked which book they would like, in addition to the Bible (or any other equivalent religious volume) and the works of Shakespeare, which are already on the island – presumably left by the previous occupant, who chose the pill.

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