My Next Project: How Lit Changed History


My major New Year’s resolution is to make substantive progress on my book. To kick off the process, I lay out today a tentative table of contents. I’ve written about many of the subjects over the years.

The book is tentatively entitled How Literature Changed Western History. I will have two sections, one devoted to what great minds have said about literature’s impact on readers and one devoted to specific examples. At the advice of a publisher who visited our campus, I envision 40 or so short chapters averaging 2-4 pages each. The book will be directed at a general audience but will have to hold its own before the judgment of the scholarly community. I’m not entirely committed to every work on the list but it will give you a sense of the book’s scope.

I’ll note that, in describing impact, I’ll sometimes be talking about works that led to specific events (Uncle Tom Cabin’s connection with the Civil War) and sometimes ways that the works got us to think about reality differently. Sometimes I focus on the impact of the work when it came out, sometimes centuries later, sometimes both. (As an example of the latter, Jane Eyre influenced the rise of governess unions in the 19th century and later played a role in both the suffragette movement and 1970s feminism.) In all instances, as I do daily on this blog, I will focus on concrete examples.

Part I – Theories of Literature’s Impact
–Sir Philip Sidney
–Samuel Johnson
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
–Matthew Arnold
–Bertolt Brecht
–Terry Eagleton
–Franz Fanon
–Hans Robert Jauss
–Tania Modleski
–Martha Nussbaum

Part II – Examples
–Homer, The Iliad
–Sophocles, Antigone
Virgil, The Aeneid
–Dante, The Divine Comedy
–Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
–Marlowe, The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus
–Shakespeare, Hamlet
–John Milton, Paradise Lost
–Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
–Goethe, Sorrows of Young Werther
–Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
–Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
–Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
–Tolstoy, War and Peace
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness & Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
–Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray
–Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
–Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
–Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

You’ll be hearing much more about this in the months to come.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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