THE word 'appreciation' has probably now lost the power it once had to denote sensitive, sympathetic and detailed reflection and commentary on a piece of literature. Its currency as 'liking' or 'gratitude', whether in the vulgar-genteel register of a Kath Day-Knight, or the formulaic courtesies of a modern office environment, has dulled its analytical edge and weakened its evaluative authority to the point where it is difficult to think of 'appreciating' a writer's work as an intellectually serious operation at all. And this despite the fact that the term still retains much of its older, more rigorous meaning when applied to the visual arts, and to certain areas of the general culture--wine-tasting, for example--where both pleasure and discrimination are highly valued. Why that particular gap has opened up between literature and the fine arts over the last forty or fifty years is a nice question. What is fairly clear, though, is that the terms used to describe more reflective and analytical dealings with literature--terms like 'criticism' and 'interpretation'--are not now, and perhaps never were, perfectly interchangeable with 'appreciation'. And for that reason a closer acquaintance with the term's provenance and meaning is likely to contribute to our understanding of past reading paradigms and practices, especially as regards the reading and study of literature.
Ralph Spaulding's recent work on the teaching of poetry in Tasmania in the first half of the twentieth century usefully highlights the currency of the term 'appreciation' in the discourse of primary and secondary school English education at that time. Its emergence reflects the gradual trend away from a philological to an aesthetic emphasis in the teaching of literature, a trend that was associated with the vaguely defined 'New Education' movement in Britain and the colonies in the late nineteenth century (175-79). (1) One striking feature of 'appreciation' as it was invoked in the school contexts he deals with is its stubborn resistance to precise definition or easy application. Many Tasmanian teachers' understanding of the concept, he argues, was limited (180), and furthermore 'few [inspectors] suggested specific strategies to enhance appreciation in the classroom' (184). But by 1920, there were in fact several textbooks available in Australia that did contain excerpts, commentary, activities and exercises explicitly designed to foster literary appreciation, and some of these were recommended for use. Precisely how much actual classroom use was made of such resources, in Tasmania or other states, would be difficult to establish with certainty (let alone how effective they may have been), but it seems reasonable to suppose that where such a book was explicitly recommended by an examining authority--as, for example, Pritchard's Training in Literary Appreciation was in Tasmania (187)--the uptake across the system would have been significant.
Some of the difficulties teachers experienced in understanding and applying appreciation in the classroom may also have had to do with its conceptual ambiguity. 'Appreciation' has a complicated history in the nineteenth century, made more so by its shifting relationship to an older and even more complex concept, that of 'taste'. Reduced to its essentials, by the end of the century, 'appreciation'--which was sometimes equated with 'taste' and sometimes opposed to it--had come to mean an ability to enjoy good literature; and it had begun to circulate widely as one of the chief goals of a literary education, both within the school system but, even more emphatically at this time, within the 'self-improving' culture of worker education and university extension. (2)
Because of its entanglement with 'taste', the presence or absence of the word appreciation is not an infallible guide to meaning. Even well into the twentieth century, a reading adviser like Arnold Bennett, in Literary Taste (1909), could use 'taste' more or less interchangeably with 'appreciation,' in the sense of enjoyment rather than judgement: as a taste for literature rather than taste in literature (13-21). Conversely, Walter Pater had used 'appreciation', in Appreciations (1889), to mean something closer to 'taste' in its other main literary sense: as the ability to make correct judgements about literature. Nonetheless, an ability to understand and enjoy literature, especially less immediately accessible older works of largely undisputed merit--literary classics--seems to have been well established as a desirable outcome of the study of literature by the first decade of the century.
A second striking feature of Spaulding's account of the Tasmanian situation is his demonstration of the space it afforded for vigorous disagreement on method within a broadly appreciative approach. A.B. Taylor, Professor of English at the University of Tasmania from 1926 to 1956, advocated 'rigorous', 'careful', and 'precise' attentiveness to language and literary form as against the rhapsodic rambling--'a sort of emotional gush', Taylor called it (Spaulding 186)--to which the more 'creative' versions of appreciative pedagogy could descend. But this critique, trenchant as it was, did not signify a return to philology, nor to any other 'extrinsic' form of criticism, so much as a determination to preserve and enrich the quality of the aesthetic experience that a properly appreciative reading sought to realise. What can seem like a conflict between fundamentally opposed approaches to the study of literature might better be seen as an attempt by a university figure (Taylor) to rescue the appreciative tradition from its own entropic tendencies. Ironically, it may have been that very vagueness that allowed the tradition to accommodate the rigour and precision demanded by academic critics in Britain and America in the 1930s, and to use that rigour and precision to renew itself without abandoning devotion to the enhancement of literary enjoyment as its principal goal and rationale.
What becomes increasingly apparent and worrying in speaking about a tradition of literary appreciation in the early twentieth century is the artificiality of isolating it within one or another sector of the whole 'institution of literature'. Literary appreciation was being taught, valued and practised in primary and secondary schools, in universities (intra- and extra-mural), and in the general reading culture, in several different parts of the world (including Australia), at more or less the same time. And the boundaries between the various cultural, national and educational sectors were relatively porous: lines of cultural influence, commercial exchange and administrative responsibility passed from one to the other in several different directions.
A way of capturing a sense of the international and cross-institutional character of literary appreciation is to consider some of the teachers, critics, academics and publishers--British, American and Australian--whose books helped to disseminate the idea and the practice of appreciation, directly or indirectly, across the Australian education system and Australian book culture during the first half of the twentieth century. The clearest and most consistent exponent of literary appreciation, and one of the most persuasive and engaging advocates for its central role in the teaching of literature, was Richard Green Moulton. (3) Born in Preston in 1849, Moulton was a prominent lecturer in University Extension almost from its inception in the early 1870s. He later emigrated to the United States, played a key role in organising the American University Extension program, and in 1892 was …