Via Williams’ Keywords: “Literature”

Raymond Williams’s Keywords (and its numerous continuations by subsequent scholars) helps us understand broad trends in literary, political, and cultural history by tracing the trajectories of particular terms and their clustering and reconfiguration over time. The PDF here contains the Intro, and entries for “”Culture,” “Literature,” “Man,” and “Sensibility.”

In one sense, Keywords can be treated as a straightforward reference book, a kind of scholarly supplement to the OED, but what makes it really valuable is Williams’s decision to focus upon the most contested, most resonant words available to writers and readers at particular historical conjunctures. It is particularly helpful as it teases apart and distinguishes prescriptive from descriptive uses of words and shows competing usages vying for dominance in particular contexts. It is also one of those rare scholarly books whose erudition is revealed in its economy, in its spare yet well-chosen examples, and in its lucidity of definition and explanation.

In his “Intro” Williams notes that the starting point for his project in “historical semantics” (the history of evolving meanings surrounding certain terms) was the “cluster,” the set of interrelated words and references that make up a historically specific vocabulary for a period (22). He goes on to talk about the need for analyzing, above all, interrelations of terms, so that their social, collective character could be recognized (24-5). Hence, the focus will be on the historical, social nature of language, as used by both artists or public.

In his entry on “Literature,” Williams notes that “English literature” seems like a perfectly intelligible concept until we try to test its boundaries or scope with particular cases: for example, what genres or kinds of writing belong or don’t belong to literature? Should literature be restricted solely to written works or extended to drama or other forms of performance? Why or why not? Some terms conceptually or etymologically related to literature also seem quite distant from it, as we can see in the now obsolete term of “letters” (a translation of belles lettres or belletristic) or the less elevated, more functional meaning of “literacy?”

When we discuss “English literature,” though, we seem to be describing a phenomenon associated with a particular historical moment, the formation of “national literatures,” (largely a late 18th, early 19th c movement). These national literatures are crucially vernacular (witness the Romantic devaluation of the neoclassical and rhetorical heritages of pre-18c writing), and language based, and their formation coincides with the establishment of national literary histories along with the academic institutions (departments of English literature) devoted to their teaching and exegesis. But there are plenty of additional distinctions that feel too arbitrary to explain: e.g., imaginative literature vs. non-fictional genres; literature vs. sub- or “genre literature”; literature vs. popular culture; and so forth. Hence, literature is much more easily defined through these contrasts and distinctions than through any positive description of its particular features, which are extraordinarily varied, given the varieties of literary forms and genres that share this designation.