One of the main reasons for reading and writing literature is pleasure. And certainly, it is “possible to read books with appreciation and enjoyment without cluttering one’s head with dates and movements … [and] to write great literature with little or no sense of one’s place in a great tradition.” However, we read and write not only for pleasure but also for a variety of other reasons—to learn, for instance, or to find possible solutions to problems similar to our own that characters also face in their fictional lives. Literature sometimes helps us understand real-life situations. Indeed, I think literature can help us understand life itself.
To that end—understanding—I believe literary history is necessary. Literature is intertwined with history. No author writes in a vacuum. The writings of other people, the significant events that have taken place, the age and society in which an author lives—all these shape a writer’s consciousness and consequently, his/her work. For example, George Orwell’s 1984, influenced by the threat of Stalin and Totalitarianism, expressed the despairing mood of Orwell’s time; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is also a great social history of the Jazz Age; and Ezra Pound’s imagist poems were a rebellion of sorts against the “rules” of traditional poetry.
Many of the greatest contributions to literature have stemmed from a writer’s reaction to social conditions. To understand deeply the meaning of a literary work, we must possess knowledge of events pertinent to the work. For instance, in one of my literature classes where we studied Third World fiction, we were made to read up on the history of the nations from which the work of fiction came. This helped us put the works into perspective. Knowing that a patriarchal ideology dominated a certain society or being familiar with a nation’s colonial past helped us answer the “whys” of the works—especially those of stories written as allegories of their nations. And as one of my professors once said: “As scholars, never be content with ‘What?’ That is very easy to answer. It is what is there. ‘Why?’ is a more important question to answer.” If we knew nothing about the history of those nations, we would not have been able to answer those ‘whys’ adequately. Much of the meaning of those writings would have been lost on us and we would have been less enlightened.
Knowledge of the nature of works that have been written in the past is also important in the creation of literature. Writers often find inspiration in past works, as when the neo-classicists modelled their works on those of the peoples of antiquity. With so much that has been written about everything, writers have to present familiar concepts in a fresh light. But how would one defamiliarize, say, an archetype so that it would not end up being stereotypical if one knew nothing about archetypes in the first place?
Finally, history is interesting (at least for me) in itself. And it certainly would be more interesting if integrated with literature, be it in the creation of historical fiction or just the annotation of historical events relevant to a particular work. Besides, is there not a peculiar pleasure derived from knowing more than just what happened in the plot of a story? Is it not interesting to go around and outside a literary work?