Monday, February 28, 2011

All Well-Bred Persons Were Expected To

“One reason [the term invention disappeared from the vocabulary of literary criticism] involves the development of literary criticism as an academic discipline, something that happened in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Before that, reading and reflecting on literature was something that all well-bred persons were expected to do; it was no more to be taught at university than the habit of drinking port after dinner. Those who sought to bring literary study into the university curriculum needed some justification for their field, needed to show that the study of literature is something far more rigorous and objective than the expression of good taste through the encounter with les belles lettres. It therefore became necessary for literary study to develop quasi-scientific methods of inquiry and to eschew evaluation. The question of whether a poem is good or bad, being a matter of mere taste and not subject to methodological codifying, could safely be left to the poets and book reviewers; scholars had more vital tasks to attend to.”

— Alan Jacobs, “The Brightest Heaven of Invention,” in Wayfaring, p. 57

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