Limiting Literature

by Matthew Koslowski on July 15, 2009
in Essays

I was listening to Radio Boston on Saturday. After main feature, called “Patrick in the Crosshairs,” about the developing Massachusetts Gubernatorial Race, ended there was a short feature called “New England Music of Life and Death, Not Bed and Breakfast”.

When most people think of New England Folk music, they imagine cheery songs sung in the Berkshires, our gentle mountains at Massachusetts’s western border, dotted with bed&breakfast inns and craft stores. But as Tim Eriksen reminds us, Massachusetts was once a frontier, just as wild and rugged as that explored by Lewis and Clark. He sings a murder ballad to prove his point.

I realized that he was discussing literature asĀ  history: this murder ballad is both a folk song and historical record.

The murder ballad, he says, is inspired by a true story. Although fictionalized and set to rhythm, the ballad records what happened and warns people of the dangers associated with sea travel. But more than that it allows us to imagine what happened and it inspires us to question what it would feel like to experience that situation. Does the fact that it is a folk song in anyway limit the historical and journalistic content of the story? When I was a schoolboy, I had to memorize part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. …

Much of what we call the history of Paul Revere’s ride, most of what we know of it, is shaped by our knowledge of this poem. This poem has become a historical document.

When did we reduce literature to fiction and poetry?

In so restricting the domain of literature, we do ourselves a grave disservice. When we separate fiction from history and poetry from philosophy, we restrict ourselves and limit our experience of the world.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

There was a time when “poetry” encompassed both what we today call fiction and poetry. There was a time when “literature” encompassed poetry, fiction, and essay but also history, letters, philosophy, speeches, journalism, legal texts, and scientific writing. If you doubt that legal documents can be considered as literature, I would recommend you read again The Declaration of Independence. To be considered literate, one needed to have the flexibility of mind to read all these different documents.

Each of the different disciplines allowed a person to appreciate the world with increasing depth. While I will not go so far as to say, as some post-modernist theorists state, that all the world is a text written on a palimpsest, stating that texts are a major component in our world is perhaps itself an understatement. We live in a culture in which texts surround us to a greater extent than ever before in history. In segregating the different disciplines of literature, of having English classes that teach only English fiction and poetry, we deprive ourselves of a greater richness of experience.

I want to see curricula in which English curricula engages with other curricula and vice versa. Let’s have students read in their English classes biographies of historical figures from that they are learning about in their history classes; and have the students read in their history classes letters written by those historical figures to their contemporaries or fiction or plays that were popular at that time. In many of my English classes, we discussed the trends in the culture that were reflected or rejected by the author during composition of their work as well as the author’s biography. These were seen as necessary for deep comprehension of the text. Why is it, then, that we read, for example, only about the specific facts in a history class?

When people ask, “Why study literature?” I respond that literature is the human invention best suited to the transmission of knowledge. Literature allows us to be fully human.


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