Rene Wellek, "What Is Literature?" In 16 -

I shall discuss the question raised by the title of this book in historical terms. "What is literature?" I shall assume, asks for an answer to what has been or is now called literature. Very simply, one can distinguish today between meanings which gradually narrow down the most general and obvious meaning, justified also etymologically, the view that "lerature" is anything in print. Littera means letter, and litteratura in Latin was a translation of the Greek word grammatike, the knowledge of reading and writing, as Quintilian tells us in his Institutiones.[1] This widest use is obvious today when we speak of literature about a pharmaceutical product or about campaign literature. In many modern theories or prescriptions of what lierary scholarship should be about, there is often the assumption that anything in print is its province. Edwin Greenlaw's The Province of Literary History (1931) argues that nothing in print can be excluded from literary study: with him, literary history is identified with the history of civilization, for which, of course, pictorial or other material records, unearthed by archeologists, also serve as legitimate documentation.

But historically literature has been used to define writings of /17/some significance, to books of whatever subject which made an impact. Some criterion of quality or value (intellectual, moral, aesthetic, political, national) is implied. This is the conception which prevailed for centuries since antiquity under two names: litterae and its derivatives in the modern languages: letters and litteratura. I have made a special study of this history which proves the continuity of these terms over many centuries and am therefore surprised when I am told, e.g., by Roland Barthes, that "literature" is a recent term, a creation of the nineteenth century, or by Maurice Blanchot, that it is a "mot tardif, mot sans honneur."[2] In Cicero, one of the most influential and widely-read writers of all times, we find the terms Graecae litterae, historia litteris nostris, and studium litterarum. The term litteratura is used by him in the sense of erudition, literary culture, when he speaks of Caesar having litteratura in a list of qualities which includes "good sense, memory, reflection, and diligence."[3] We have to go to Tertullian and Cassian in the second century A.D. to find the term used for a body of writing. They contrast secular pagan writing, litteratura, with scriptura, the Bible, the sacred Writ.[4] Litterae in antiquity is used exactly as many of us use it today: it refers to the corpus of Greek literature, to the history and study of literature, etc. In practice, it was, as Aulus Gellius tells us, identical with humanitas, or paideia. [5]

In the Middle Ages the two terms seem to have disappeared: litteratus is used in the sense of literate. In the trivium, poetry is of course recognized as an art assigned to grammar and rhetoric. But with the Renaissance the term litterae reappears, mostly combined with the adjective humanae to set it off from sacred theological writings, or bonae as a term of praise. You find it all over Erasmus, Rabelais, Du Bellay, Montaigne and others; and Dryden still speaks of "good letters."[6] In the seventeenth century the term ("belles lettres") emerged. In 1666 Charles Perrault proposed to Colbert, the minister of finance of Louis XIV, an Academy with a section of belles lettres which was to indude /18/ grammar, eloquence, and poetry.[7] The term was felt to be identical with lettres humaines, as e.g. the Dictionnaire de Trevoux (1704) shows.[8] It had nothing of the faintly derisive implication with which we speak today of "belletristic." The French term spread quickly to England. It was used by Thomas Rymer in 1692.[9] Hugh Blair became the first Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh in 1762.

By that time the term "literature" had emerged in the sense, at first, of literary culture, erudition, or simply knowledge of the classical languages. In the 1721 edition of the Dictionnaire de Trevoux, litterature is defined as "doctrine, connaissance profonde des lettres," and in the great Encyclopedia an article, signed D J, i.e., le chevalier Jaucourt, defines Litterature as "terme general qui designe l'erudition, la connaissance des Belles Lettres." It is used in the same way in English, when in 1691 John Selden, the antiquary, was called "a person of infinite literature''[10] or when Boswell, almost a century later, referred to Giuseppe Baretti as "an Italian of considerable literature.''[11] This use of the word survived into the nineteenth century. John Petherham wrote a Sketch of the Progress and Present State of Anglo-Saxon Literature in England (1840), in which "literature" must mean the study or the knowledge of literature. Incidentally, in the term "comparative literature," the older usage was revived. It means the comparative study of lierature and is not as Lane Cooper complained "a bogus term which makes neither sense nor syntax.''[12]

Apparently very early in the eighteenth century (to judge from the recent research of Claude Crispin in Aux origines de I'histoire litteraire, 1973), the term was used for a body of writing, though it is sometimes difficult to draw a sharp distinction between the concurrent use of "literary culture, erudition." Here is the title of a book by le Pere Cl.F. Menestrier: Bibliotheque curieuse et instructive des divers auteurs anciens et modernes de litterature et des arts (1704). It clearly refers to a body of writing in Frangois /19/ Granet's little-known Reflections sur les ouvrages de litterature in 1737. Voltaire in Le Siecle de Louis XIV speaks in 1750 of "les genres de litterature" cultivated in Italy.[13] The Abbe Sabatier de Castres published Les Siecles de litterature francaise in 1772, the very year in which Girolamo Tiraboschi began his monumental, many-volumed Storia della letteratura italiana. In Germany the new use was completely established even earlier. Lessing's Briefe die neueste Litteratur betreffend (1759ff.) applies clearly to a body of writing, and so does Herder's Über die neuere deutsche Litteratur (1767).

In English the same process took place. The Oxford Dictionary is mistaken by at least 60 years when it quotes the first example for "body of writing" from 1822. In 1761 George Colman the elder thought that "Shakespeare and Milton seem to stand alone, like first-rate authors, amid the general wreck of old English literature."[14] In 1767 Adam Ferguson included a chapter "Of the History of Literature" in his Essay on the History of Civil Society. In 1774 Dr. Johnson, in a letter, wished that "what is undeservedly forgotten of our antiquated literature might be revived"[15] and John Berkenhout in 1777 subtitled his Biographia Literaria, A Biographical History of Literature, in which he proposed to give a "concise view of the rise and progress of literature." Examples from the late 18th century could be easily multiplied. Still, the first book in English called A History of English Language and Literature by Robert Chambers dates from as late as 1836.

In all of these cases literature is used very inclusively. It refers to all kinds of writing, including those of erudite nature, history, theology, philosophy, and even natural science. Only very slowly was the term narrowed down to what we today call "imaginative literature": the poem, the tale, the play in particular. This is a process intimately connected with the rise of aesthetics, of the whole system of arts which in older times was not clearly set off from the sciences on the one side and crafts on the / 20/ other. The traditional linkage of the arts and sciences was, I believe, first clearly dissolved in Charles Perrault's Parallele des Anciens et des Modernes (1688-97) where the beaux arts are contrasted with the sciences, though the Dictionnaire de Trevoux in 1721 has still the term "Lettres" defined as: "se dit aussi des Sciences." In the polemics between the conservatives and the philosophes the term "litterature" emerges in the new narrow meaning of fictional literature, to set the humanities off against the new geometrical spirit, the new rationalism. Jean-Georges Le Franc de Pompignan in L'Essai sur l'etat present de la republique des lettres in 1743, uses "litterature" as a synonym of belles lettres and narrows it expressly to the "epic poem, the tragedy, the comedy, the ode, the fable, history and eloquence.''[l6] Another early conscious declaration of this new use I found in the Preface to Carlo Denina's Discorso sopra le vicende della letteratura (1760), a widely-read book which was soon translated into French and English. Denina professes "not to speak of the progress of the sciences and arts, which are not properly a part of literature." He will speak of works of learning only when they belong to "good taste, to eloquence, that is to say, to literature.''[17] That literature was used in this new aesthetic sense at that time may be illustrated by Aurelio de Giorgi-Bertola's Idea della bella letteratura alemanna (1784), which is an expansion of an older Idea della poesia alemanna (1779). The change of title was made necessary by the inclusion of a new chapter about the German novel, in particular the Sorrows of Young Werther.

To speak sweepingly one can say, summarizing, that in antiquity and in the Renaissance, literature or letters were understood to include all writing of quality with any pretense to permanence. The view that there is an art of literature, which includes both poetry and prose insofar as it is imaginative fiction, and excludes information or even rhetorical persuasion, didactic argumentation or historical narration, emerged only slowly in the eighteenth century. The discussion of taste, the rise of the virtuoso, the invention of the term aesthetic by /21/ Baumgarten in 1735—all this and much more led to Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), the treatise which gave clear formulas for distinguishing between the beautiful, the good, the true, and the useful. The slow rise in the prestige of the novel, long frowned upon as frivolous, collaborated in establishing a concept of literature parallel to the plastic arts and to music which is still with us today.

I leave it to others to discuss the further question of how one can define the boundaries of fictionality, of the narrow concept of literature as imaginative fiction against the wider use as significant writing. Shall one exclude Montaigne, Pascal, Burke, Gibbon, Berkeley, etc., from literature because they do not even pretend to write fiction? And if we, sensibly, include them in this concept (for how can we imagine a history of English literature in the eighteenth century without Gibbon, Berkeley, and Burke?), we must still confront the problem of the peculiar nature of imaginative literature; of the play, the poem, and the tale. There will be inevitably borderline cases where it is difficult to distinguish between fiction and reportage: think of Defoe's Memoirs of a Cavalier or even his Journal of the Plague Year or between philosophy and myth-making as in Plato. But these cases have to be adjudicated individually: they do not refute the basic distinction between literature as an art, as fiction, as making, between Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, and the great philosophers and historians who, after all, make a claim to literal truth. The recent attempts such as that of Roland Barthes propagating the term ecriture in order to eradicate this distincion or that of Hayden White in his Metahistory (1973) to assimiate historiography to fiction seem to me mistaken. In the case of Barthes and the French structuralists and their adherents in this ountry, they seem to be strategies to elevate criticism to the same status as creative writing, to defend a criticism which has become personal, fictional, and even completely arbitrary, proclaiming misunderstanding, misreading, misprision as positive virtues. But this is another topic.


[1] Liber 2, Chapter I, Section 4.

[2] Roland Barthes, Essais critiques (Paris, 1964), p. 1Z5. "Depuis que la 'Litterature' existe (c'est-a-dire si l'on juge d'apres la date du mot, depuis fort peu de temps), on peut dire c'est la fonction de l'ecrivain que de la combattre." Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre a venir (Paris, 1959), p.. "Litterature—mot tardif, mot sans honneur."

[3] M. Tulli Ciceronis in M. Antonium, Oratio Phillipica Secunda. "Fuit in illo ingenium, raho, memoria, litteratura [in some texts: litterae], cura, cogitaho, diligenha." Loeb Library edition of the Phillipics, trans. Walter C. A. Ker (London, 19Z6), pp. 178-79. ~

_ 4. De Spectaculis, 17, 6. "Si doctrinam saecularis litteraturae ut stul- i

_ titiae apud deum deputatum, aspernamur."

s.Noctes Atticae, 13, 7. "Sed 'humanitatem' appellaverunt id pro- ~

_ pemodum, quod Graeci paidetan vocant nos 'eruditionem in- F

stitutionemque in bonas ards' dicimus." Quoted in article "Humanitas"

(by J. Heinemann) in Pauly's Enzyklopddie der classischen Altertumswis

senschaft, Supplementband s (Stuttgart, 1931), column z8s.

6. "Good letters" in Dedicahon to the Aeneis (1697) in Essays, ed. W. ~

P. Ker (Oxford, 1908), 3, z40. 1

_ 7. Charles Perrault, Lettres, ed. P. Clement (Paris, 1868), 5, slzf.

8. "On appelle des lettres humaines ou les belles lettres, la ~

_ grammaire, I'eloquence, lapoesie." F

9. A Short View of Tragedy (169Z) in The Critical Works, ed. C. A.

Zimansky (New Haven, 1956), p. 83.

_ lo. From NED quoting J. Edwards, Author, Old and New Testament, p.


. Boswell, Lik •f Samuel Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6

~vol. (Oxford, ~934), I, 302.

_ Iz. Experiments in Education (Ithaca, N.Y., 194Z), p. 75. ~

13. Ed. Rene Groos, z vol. (Paris, 1947), z, 145. i

_ 14. Critical Re~Qections on the Old English Dramatick Writers. Extracted

from a Prefatory Discourse to the New Edition of Massinger's Works (London, ~

61). i

15. Letter to the Rev. Dr. Horne, April 3o, 1774, in Catalogue of the b

Johnsonian Collection of R.B. Adams (Buffalo, 19Z1), no paginahon.

16. P. 189: "le poeme epique, la Tragedie, la Comedie, l'Ode, la Fable,

_ I'Histoire, I'Eloquence."