The History of English Literature

The History of English Literature

In English literature, the definition of literature has changed many times, usually in response to historical and cultural realities. It is not surprising that at a time in which the digital has started to eclipse print—the main medium for literature for 400 years—we find the former definitions lacking, and seek to find a place for literature in the digital age. What follows is a brief time-line of literature, encompassing a few different definitions, and ending with a proposed definition for digital literature.
Before the 18th Century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines literature at this time as an “acquaintance with ‘letters’ or books; polite or humane learning; literary culture.” In other words, literature is equated with literacy. Those few who can read are literary and what they read is literature.

Early 18th Century. At this time literacy had become more widespread, and print works a valuable commodity. The OED definition of literature at this time reflects this: literature is “literary work or production; the activity or profession of a man of letters; the realm of letters.” At this time, literature becomes the specialized work of a few, a professional enterprise, or what we now call journalism.

Later 18th Century. This period in England is known as the Age of Enlightenment. An important enlightenment thinker in Britain was William Godwin, who defined literature as “the diffusion of knowledge through the medium of discussion, whether written or oral.” For Godwin and other British enlightenment figures, literature was knowledge that is shared; it was the means by which people become enlightened and society improved. Note that Godwin includes in his definition oral dissemination—that is, an element of sociability, of community. For Godwin and others like him, literature was the “republic of letters,” or what we might now call the “public sphere.”

19th Century: In the wake of the French Revolution, enlightenment ideals fell out of favor,...

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