Thursday, June 28, 2018

What is a literary historian?

In a brief discussion in comments on Tony Hughes-D'Aeth and Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture: a response (17 June 2018), marcellous talked about Tony D'Aeth as a literary historian. He is formally described in this way in The Conversation:
Tony Hughes-d'Aeth is a lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia, where he teaches and researches in the fields of Australian literary studies and cultural history, and contemporary and world literature. His latest book is Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (UWAP, 2017).
Both my piece and the discussion continue to raise issues in my mind that relate to my primary writing task, a history of New England. I will deal with those in a post on my history blog. Here I briefly want to expose a confusion in my own mind that can be presented in this way: what, exactly, is a literary historian?

I had thought that a literary historian was one who studied the history of literature. This included studies of literature about a particular topic. So a literary history of the Western Australian wheatbelt was a study of literature about or in some way linked to the wheat belt. I now realised that in thinking about this there was already a confusion in my mind between the use of literary sources to study the history of the wheatbelt as compared to a study of literature about or connected in some way with the wheatbelt. These are two very different things.

I can illustrate this further using a current writing task as an example, one I referred to in an earlier post, Bogged down in growing up in New England..This story describes growing up on the New England Tablelands in the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of five people, four of whom described their experiences in book form, the fifth had his experiences recorded by others. Is this story a study of childhood, a literary history, a cultural history or some combination of the three? I am struggling to strike the right balance.

Tony introduces a third variable into the mix, that of the environment as occupying centre stage in historiography. This introduces a new complexity, for it gives us multiple dimensions: history of area as evidenced by literature, the literary history of regions, the history of changing attitudes to the environment as evidenced through literature and the literary history of certain types of writing. These things overlap, but are not quite the same.

Marcellous introduced a further element by suggesting that Tony was a bit of a post-modernist type. As I confessed to marcellous, I had to look post-modernist up to refresh my memory for it largely passed me by. This led me to this abstract of chapter 2 of Jonathan Culler's Barthes: A Very Short Introduction entitled literary historian. Barthes was an eminent French scholar.
‘Literary historian’ explores why Barthes was interested in history. By showing when and how various practices came into being, historical study works to demystify the ideology of a culture, exposing its assumptions as ideology. Barthes values history for the strangeness of other epochs and what they can teach us about the present. Moreover, history is useful because it can provide a story for making the present intelligible. All writing contains signs that indicate a social mode, a relation to society, and Barthes's first book Le Degré zéro is a brief history of these ‘signs of literature’.
Digging a little further, I found myself in the world of cultural studies and literary theory. I was reminded of my time back full time at University in 1981 and 1982  when I felt that I should refresh myself on the changes that had taken place in the study of history and also sociology. For two weeks I sat there and just sped read. I found some useful stuff - semiotics is an example, something that actually links to yesterday's post -  but at the end of two weeks I felt that if I met one more theorist I might do serious damage. In retrospect, that was probably a most efficacious inoculation against post-modernism!

Writing in 1994, Wendell Harris asked "What is 'Literary' History?" His core point was that the term had acquired so many meanings that clarity required that the meaning being applied should always be avoid confusion. I can see his point.  

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