The idea of literature has been around for quite some time, but it was not until the 1800s that people began to consider literature partition opposite as something with any particular history or purpose. Previously, literature had simply been a fluid stream of stories that were passed from one person to another, much like oral traditions. The onset and development of the academic field of literary studies began in earnest in 18th century Germany after Goethe published his famous Theory of Colors. Literary experts observed this theory through the lens of its influence on aesthetic theory and then turned their attention on to literary works themselves.
1. The Muses in the Age of Enlightenment
The word “theory” is a special case of the word “theory” and the word “science,” which both start with a capital letter. The Greek prefix ta- means “that which is.” By this definition, literary critics study literature to learn what makes literature such a complicated phenomenon: something that people cling to, tell others about and even try to pass on. For Schlegel, Goethe and other European theorists of the period, there was no doubt that works of art were products of human intelligence. The origin of these works lay in human labor (Goethe’s Theory of Colours), but their primary purpose was for aesthetic pleasure (Goethe’s Theory of Art).
This Germanic tradition of the study of literature, rather than the emphasis on trying to get at truths about reality or changes in society, has been adopted by modernist critics such as T.S. Eliot who themselves are trying to come up with new ideas about what literature is and what it means. When talking about modernist writers and their various styles, we often use the language of “experimentation” and “innovation.” In many ways I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s difficult to imagine how anything could be invented without first building off of some sort of previous model. If you’re trying to build a sports car, you start with that basic model and move forward from there. One of the ways we can trace the history of literature backwards is through the evolution of an aesthete’s definition of literary style.
2. Literature as Culture
The development of literary studies can also be traced back to some key events in European history. During the 18th century, there was a movement for “liberty” and “reason” that has come to be known as the Enlightenment (see: Age of Enlightenment). Artists and writers at this point weren’t simply painting their feelings onto a canvas or giving voice to their deepest desires by writing in a diary. These artists and writers were beginning to think in a very analytical way about the nature of the arts. This was also a time when it became possible for art to become more accessible to everyday people.
This is not an easy task, especially if you are trying to make a living at it, but there were many writers in Europe who were trying to do it. To follow this historical thread, we must first understand that many of the major literary critics of the 18th century began their careers as men (Thomas Gray and Gotthold Lessing) or women (Christina Rossetti and Jane Austen) of letters who published poetry and sometimes novels. These writers were financially dependent on the patronage provided by wealthy families who saw the value of having a well-regarded poet or novelist in their family. The exploration of the nature of art was therefore often accompanied by an examination of proper behavior and ethics.
The 18th century German critic, Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829)
And so for these people, it was about a quest for self-expression and beauty. But after the French Revolution, there came a new way to think about what it means to be an artist and literary critic. They didn’t like the idea that culture had become codified into rigid rules and exactly what you should do with your talents.
3. The Rise of Literature
When scholars talk about literature, they’re referring to art or fiction. But what do we mean when we say “art” or “fiction”? As it turns out, the question doesn’t have a simple answer. There’s a lot of debate among literary experts on this topic, which is where all this talk of “theories” comes from. Literary theory in the 18th century began as a way to think about the relationship between an author and their audience, but it evolved into an attempt to draw some basic distinctions among types of literature.
This is where we start to run into problems. This distinction between types of literature is often referred to as genres (or “kinds”) of literature. The great scholar/writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once said that every form of writing has a purpose, and every different kind of writing has its own form. In other words, there’s some basic reason why you’re reading one story as opposed to another. The difficulty comes in trying to figure out what exactly constitutes the difference between literary styles or genres—and that’s where scholars like Goethe and Schlegel come in.