Literature Brings the Physical Past to Life

Scott Herring

Recently, literary theorists have been making another of their occasional efforts to restore a trace of earthly reality to criticism. This time those efforts have taken the form of Darwinian literary studies, which attempt to relate the universal impulse to tell stories to human nature, as shaped by evolution.

My guess is that those theorists are motivated partly by a desperate realization that, in the process of deconstructing the profession, we in the literature business have shot ourselves not in the foot, but in the head. At a time of contracting education budgets, the public is no longer willing to pay for courses titled "Bat[woman] and Cat[man]: Queering the Canonical Comix."

If nothing else, people may appreciate the application of scientific thinking to a field that has known little of it. Americans admire practicality, and our profession has become esoteric and politicized. Today’s literary scholarship too often serves as a vehicle for politics, and even professors who care little for public opinion are eager to indoctrinate students in their views. We seem to have given up on the notion that literature itself can be useful. But in doing so, we are forgetting a crucial function of the books we study.

History gives us the facts, sort of, but from literary works we can learn what the past smelled like, sounded like, and felt like, the forgotten gritty details of a lost era. Literature brings us as close as we can come to reinhabiting the past. By reclaiming this use of literature in the classroom, perhaps we can move away from the political agitation that has been our bread and butter—or porridge and hardtack—for the last 30 years.

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Literature Brings the Physical Past to Life 1

Courtesy of Scott Herring

A photo of the engine head of a Model B Ford sparked a flood of memories for the author’s grandfather, memories of the kind that bring new meaning to the study of literature.

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