Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Influence and literary history

On my showing, influence is the lasting effect upon the corporate understanding of an intellectual or literary genre or period. The truly influential novelist is not Harry Bellamann, whose Kings Row (1942) infected hundreds of other potboiler-makers with the virus that causes sex scenes, but Jane Austen, who changed the understanding of the novel for all time despite relative neglect during her own lifetime.

The job of literary history, as I understand it, would then be to reconstruct the literary context out of which the truly influential writers emerged, which includes projects like Miriam Burstein’s to recover the subgenres and movements and styles that once flourished but were lost or abandoned, because they proved not to be influential after all. Literary history—and the same would hold for the history of philosophy, I would bet—is not the same as political history or even intellectual history.

The historian is concerned only with making the past intelligible in its own terms, and thus for him a person’s contemporary influence is all that matters—even if the person is subsequently forgotten. He does not relate past events to present understanding, but the literary historian—and the historian of philosophy too, if I am right—cannot escape it. Their subjects are defined by current value in a way the historian’s is not.

Thus when writing his history of Enthusiasm (1950), Ronald Knox was obliged to devote a chapter to François Malaval, Pier Matteo Petrucci, and Michael Molinos, even though no one now is influenced by them. But Burstein cannot ignore Cardinal Newman. He is, after all, to adopt her typography, Cardinal Newman. She is obliged to include him in a history of nineteenth-century conversion novels, even though “the more Victorian Catholic fiction [she] read[s], the less significant [Newman’s novel] Loss and Gain looks.” His significance is his current value.