Academic journal article
By Crisler, Jesse S.
Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics , No. 40
Intellectuals during the eighteenth century in Europe, and especially in England, delighted in developing systems for just about anything, a tendency which Jonathan Swift amusingly satirizes in the third book of his Gulliver's Travels (1726), lambasting, among other targets, the famous Academy of Projectors whose earnest investigations consistently lead nowhere. More gently, George Eliot in Middlemarch (1872) deftly takes the would-be cultural historian Casaubon to task for even attempting, let alone failing to complete, his absurdly titled opus, "Key to All Mythologies." But Eliot was a century removed from the eighteenth, and Swift, while respected, was known to be both cantankerous and vituperative. Not surprisingly, then, authors and critics during the eighteenth century, what some have termed "the last gasp of the Renaissance," turned their proclivities for classification to literature, attempting to codify its various forms into a neat system. Recognizing that they were not the first to assign written products to well-defined categories--one thinks, for example, of the great Aristotle who wrestled with this very problem in his Poetics or of the Old Testament traditionally said to contain books of Law, Prophets, and Writings--they nonetheless methodically divided examples of literature, considered as broadly as possible, into three general categories: poetry, prose, and drama. The first comprised a host of lesser forms, both familiar and obscure, such as epics, odes, sonnets, ballads, eclogues, georgics, sestinas, villanelles, rondeaux, rondels, rondelets, etc.; the second, less florid, numbered only tales, essays, and literary criticism; and the third featured plays of any variety including comedy, tragedy, farce, burlesque, masque, etc.
While systematizers quickly learned that some forms of literature, such as those developed by eighteenth-century literary practitioners themselves, defied easy classification, they ably consigned even these newer examples to categories that were becoming increasingly rigid. For example, the periodic essays popularized by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the Spectator, while more humorous than those produced by earlier writers such as Montaigne and Francis Bacon, were nonetheless clearly essays as opposed to poems or plays. James Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson, though markedly literary in ways that Plutarch's Lives had not been, was still a biography, just as newspapers, finally reaching a general readership at this time, were but another avatar of prose. Thus, certainly during the eighteenth century and for most of the next two centuries, writers, critics, and readers themselves all felt comfortable with a literary system that appeared fairly uncomplicated yet served so seemingly well, quickly locating any given piece of writing in its logical place in what inevitably became, if not a hierarchy, then at least a programmed scheme characterized by inviolate boundaries which no single representative of literature was permitted to straddle.
And indeed the system did work, even accommodating, as noted already, new forms as they developed. When for all intents and purposes Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding invented the novel in 1740, to assign it a place proved simple, for it was obviously fiction rather than non-fiction, prose rather than drama or poetry, and different from a tale, myth, legend, any other kind of narrative then known. The answer? Why, to create a new subcategory into which all subsequent novels would fall. Similarly, a century later when Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe began experimenting with shorter fiction, eventually producing what we now term the short story, it could readily receive its own particular niche since, though prose, a short story was evidently not a novel, but nor was it a fable like Aesop's works nor a brief piece of prose like Boccaccio's tales. Proud of itself, smug in its inventiveness, secure in its ivory tower of belletristic taxonomy, the world of literature rocked along, and all were content: any example of writing obviously exhibited certain characteristics and thus could readily be distinguished as an instance of a specific genre on the basis of these very characteristics. …