My Manifesto on Literary Analysis

The question of how one should read/contextualize literature has filled countless books, but I’ll try to sum it up in 300-500 words. Throughout English 220, I felt that New Criticism offered a far too narrow view of a literary work. While it is potentially the most universal method, I found it to be the least valid. The idea of excluding all information that is not specifically in the written text and thusly coming to a single universal conclusion seems to me to actually be inherently flawed. I found that the reader’s interpretation suffers when he is unable to understand the context of the text.

When looking over all the methods we have used this semester, I found myself being drawn to New Historicism as the most credible method of understanding literature. The concept of reading literature as a historical text and interpreting it based on the events surrounding the works carries more validity than any other method. The most obvious choice of the books we have read to support New Historicism is “Mrs. Dalloway”. I have tried to imagine how I would have interpreted this novel if I read it without knowing about WWI, its effects on British culture, the decline of Imperialism, sexual and gender repression, and countless other underlying themes that one only uncovers by studying the historical context. While this is obviously an impossible task, I have come to the conclusion that I would not have such appreciation for the book if I could not place it in historical context. I would still have grasped several themes but the most encompassing and universal method is to read literature as a historical text, in my opinion. Not only this, but I find that this method works both ways as well. One of the best ways to understand history is to read the literature of the time. I believe that relating written text to the culture and history of the period it was publish in is the most effective way to understand literature and that is why New Historicism, in my opinion, is the most credible method for literary analysis that we have studied.

Quantitative Analysis

Quantitative Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding literature by treating the words in the text as data. As opposed to close reading, like we’ve been doing all year, Franco Moretti advocates “distant reading”.  He argues that since no one person can truly understand and identify patterns between vast amounts of literature, readers should employ various computer programs. These programs analyze and compare various texts and are able to decipher categories such as genre through patterns that a reader would never be able to do, such as the prevalence of specific words.

As an example of distant reading, I selected Robert Frost’s first book of poems, “A Boy’s Will”, published in 1913. I chose Frost not only because there are so many great examples of his work but also because of his method of recycling words throughout the course of his poetry and the variety of uses and definitions attributed to them. On the website Wordle, which evaluates various writings and artistically portrays the repetition of words in the works, I imputed the entire book of Frost’s poems.

http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/4503999/Robert_Frost%27s_A_Boy%27s_Will

As you can see, the word that is used the most is “one”. I then searched the word “one” on Google Ngrams, a website that displays the popularity of words in the collective works of Google Books, spanning from 1500-2000. The word “one” was a bit of a roller coaster up until 1800 but then steadily became more popular until peaking about the time that this book was published.

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=one&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

The pitfall of “distant reading” is that not only is the reader limited by the amount of literature/data they are using but there can be inaccuracy when relying on it to identify literature. The next most commonly used word in our Wordle is “love”, a very popular word in the English language so you would expect it to be consistently popular in Ngrams, but take a look:

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=love&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

We see that not only did the word not really start to be used in our catalog of Google Books until about 1570, but has really fallen out of favor since the 1700’s. While the word “love” was certainly used during Frost’s time, we would be inclined to say that this book was most likely published between 1580 and 1680, we could even go so far as to narrow the years down to 1671-1674, when the word peaked in popularity. So while I believe that the idea of “distant reading” is very interesting and should certainly be explored as a possible method, but I believe that readers may not yet be able to use this tool effectively in the course of trying to understand a work of literature.

Stanza Exercise

On shelves sit volumes splashed with ink,

This great world of knowledge only growing,

Scholars rush through here in a blink.

Can any say they’ve left truly knowing

All that which could have satisfied

The depths of a curious mind?

 

 

This stanza is six lines (a sestet). It is 8 syllables in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is that of the last stanza of Shakespearean. This stanza is describing the Dickinson College library and its boundless potential for learning but kind of the tragedy of how little people really use that resource. Also, the library at a college is basically the center of academic activity so by discussing the way people sort of pass through the library without actually delving into it, the stanza also is saying that this is the sort of the attitude attributed to the whole college experience. People don’t take advantage of the opportunity of education, even if they pass all their classes and graduate. Also, the fact that there really is no point to taking advantage of education except to satisfy curiosity is a sad sentiment. It makes it seem that the library and education, in general, is wasted on masses of people who don’t really do anything with it and all the volumes in the library are just sitting there waiting for that curious mind to actually utilize them. That person is not there just to pass a class but because of genuine interest. If nobody is actually going to use resources out of interest than all education really is is work for works sake that students just rush through to grab the diploma and get out the door into the real world. But every one of them have that piece of paper that proves they were educated and that puts them above everyone who doesn’t have a piece of paper like it. That is what the books on those shelves are there for, their purpose is to act like stepping stones to get to that diploma so instead of actually delving into the great world of knowledge, people step on it to get up to another strata of society.