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.  


marcellous said...

Hey Jim,

I was at the City of Sydney library today and the book in question was on display so I borrowed it. I give you this chunk which goes from pp 2 to 3:

"This book traces the creation of the Western Australian wheatbelt during the course of the twentieth century by considering the creative writing of those who lived in the wheatbelt at various points in their lives and then wrote about that experience. This is what I mean by a "literary history": a history of the wheatbelt as captured in the literary works deriving from it. The book approaches this task by following an "event/witness" model. The event is the creation of the wheatbelt and the witnesses are the creative writers. The creation of the wheatbelt was not felt to be a single event, but instead a gradual and, in lots of ways "natural" process that took place over generations. But in the deep time of ecological history, the creation of the wheatbelt was sudden and spectacular. Also, from the vantage point of ecology, the event is not the creation of the wheatbelt, but the disappearance of a vast territory of native wilderness with a bio-diversity almost without equal on the planet. So, the creation of the wheatbelt and the destruction of the native habitat that preceded it are one and the same, and constitute the "event" that this book is tracing.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this, marcellous. I still haven't read the book(!), so that was very interesting. I still think his thinking is muddied. To try to explain.

We have the creation of the wheat belt as seen through the eyes of the creative writers. That is certain literary history, but it's not a history of the wheat belt. Technically, the problem is to know how much wheatbelt history to put in to provide context to the writing. The last sentences, the destruction of the previous ecology, is potentially different. As I remember there is some Aboriginal writing which might support some discussion.

Still trying to think this through, I suppose it depends on whether the literature is central or a device for arguing another thesis. It comes back to centrality.