The honors seminar views literary history through the lens of a different analytical question every year, and ours is this: What good is literature?
In 1740, Samuel Richardson published the first novel in English, and it was sold as a guide for people who want to be good. Telling the story of a young lady’s resistance to her predatory boss, Pamela advertised its potential to “cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of youth of both sexes.”
That claim for the ethical good of reading was rephrased more politically in 1821, when P.B. Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And a very different argument was made for the political benefits of literary work in 1993, when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first African-American woman to win that honor, she won it with her race and gender noted. The Swedish Academy praised her work for its “visionary force and poetic import,” which “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
But this value that accrues to literature as a source of cross-cultural information is historically particular to our time, and, even now, it is easy to discount. The governor of Florida didn’t see it in 2012, for example, when he proposed that tuition would be charged differently by major. Students who pursued degrees in English would have to pay more than their peers in science and business, because the profits they bring to the state are less calculable in dollars. And why should the state have to pay for a good that’s a luxury?
We’ll pore through literary history in this seminar to consider the arguments for and against the time it takes to read literature— as a source of moral improvement, maybe, political insight, or intelligence that is useful on the job market.
As we think together in this class, each of us will hone our answers to questions like:
- Does literature make its readers better citizens of the nation and the world, perhaps, or better workers in an information economy on a global scale?
- When we read novels, poems, and plays, do we gain a greater understanding of other people who are different from us, or greater ability to live in the non-fictional world we inhabit?
- Under what conditions can reading literature bring these benefits—to whom?
- What does literature have to gain and lose from the variety of answers we might give to these questions?
We will be mindful, too, of the immediate relevance of such questions to the students in this seminar. Graduating from college in America with a major in English in 2018, you have good reason to ask: How and why did I read all this literature—and how and why should I continue to read it in the future?