The Meaning of Literature

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Cornell University Press, 1992 - Literary Criticism - 395 pages

In this searching and wide-ranging book, Timothy J. Reiss seeks to explain how the concept of literature that we accept today first took shape between the mid-sixteenth century and the early seventeenth, a time of cultural transformation. Drawing on literary, political, and philosophical texts from Central and Western Europe, Reiss maintains that by the early eighteenth century divergent views concerning gender, politics, science, taste, and the role of the writer had consolidated, and literature came to be regarded as an embodiment of universal values.

During the second half of the sixteenth century, Reiss asserts, conceptual consensus was breaking down, and many Western Europeans found themselves overwhelmed by a sense of social decay. A key element of this feeling of catastrophe, Reiss points out, was the assumption that thought and letters could not affect worldly reality. Demonstrating that a political discourse replaced the no-longer-viable discourse of theology, he looks closely at the functions that letters served in the reestablishment of order. He traces the development of the idea of literature in texts by Montaigne, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, and Cervantes, among others; through seventeenth-century writings by such authors as Davenant, Boileau, Dryden, Rymer, Anne Dacier, Astell, and Leibniz; to eighteenth-century works including those of Addison, Pope, Batteux and Hutcheson, Burke, Lessing, Kant, and Wollstonecraft. Reiss follows key strands of the tradition, particularly the concept of the sublime, into the nineteenth century through a reading of Hegel's Aesthetics.

The Meaning of Literature will contribute to current debates concerning cultural dominance and multiculturalism. It will be welcomed by anyone interested in literature and in cultural studies, including
literary theorists and historians, comparatists, intellectual historians, historical sociologists, and philosophers.


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“[D]uring the second half of the sixteenth century and the first third of the seventeenth there developed both a real and a felt series of disjunctions: within a social order driven by violence ... Read full review


A Poetics of Cultural Dismay
The Sense of an Ending
The Invention of Literature
Violence and the Humanity of Reason
Literature and Political Choice
Politics and Reason Ethics and Aesthetics
Critical Quarrels and the Argument of Gender
Inventing the Tradition
Revolution in Bounds
Sublimity and the Ends of

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About the author (1992)

Timothy J. Reiss is Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University.

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