O Literature, Thou Art Sick

The Consequences of Theory

The present condition of literature (as that term is ordinarily understood), at least in America, is obviously unhealthy.  Its illness is the result not only of internal undermining, “the invisible worm” of Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” but of external conditions, the “howling storm” on which the worm (however implausibly) rode.  External and internal decline, all too visible in this case, go together, of course.  While they can be traced partly to the enormous social and cultural changes of previous centuries, they are principally a mid- and late-20th-century development, involving separation (or “alienation”) of good readers from good writers, then decreasing numbers of both.  Earlier, belles-lettres were meaningful, as well as vigorous and popular, on both sides of the Atlantic.  Mass magazines in America gave considerable space to elite forms of literature, including poetry, as well as more popular forms, both of which nourished “parlour literature”—the practice of reading at family gatherings.  Charles Eliot Norton reported in the 1890’s that there were Dante reading clubs from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  In 19th-century France, Alphonse de Lamartine could reply to a detractor that his new book of verse would soon be in every cobbler’s pocket.  The poems of Victor Hugo, from his odes at age 20 to The...

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