Western Canon

John Sutherland‘s Enjoyable Little History of Literature

Preeminent British scholar John Sutherland’s new book is enjoyable for what it is—a skin-deep crash-course rather than a rigorous in-depth study.

Colin McPherson/Corbis

Certain renowned critics have in the last two decades stepped up their output, as if unsure of their place in literary Valhalla. But if such heated productivity hasn’t blunted their analytical edge it has palpably narrowed their range and, to an extent, diluted their credibility. James Wood charged Harold Bloom with a prolificacy of near-Updike proportions: one book didn’t so much beget another, it recycled and rephrased it, lauding the same works and lionizing the same writers. The critic William Giraldi noted how Terry Eagleton, another guilty self-plagiarizer, has joined the how-to “racket”—Eagleton’s latest, How to Read Literature, appearing hot on the heels of How to Read a Poem. (Bloom, of course, both started and bucked the trend with How to Read and Why.) Eagleton and Bloom have resorted to a kind of literary taxonomy, prescribing rehashed lists and groupings that categorize and hierarchize. The how-to, it would seem, ought to be stuffed with must-reads.

John Sutherland, currently Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London, has enjoyed a long and distinguished literary career. He is author or editor of more than 20 books and shows no sign of slowing down. But unlike Bloom and Eagleton, his books have been, while erudite and incisive, unashamedly populist. (His journalism, too: an article by Sutherland in The Guardian asks whether a new writer should be appointed to continue the adventures of Hercule Poirot.) Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1996), Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? (1997), and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (1999) are collections of essays which seek to answer “puzzles” in literature. Two recent publications, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives and 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know, are reference books for the uninitiated, and the forthcoming How to be Well Read (subtitled A Guide to 412 Novels), gives us more lists, more variations on a single theme, and a late bid to join the how-to club. A rash has become an epidemic. All critics, it would appear, are sooner or later infected.

Sutherland’s latest offering, while not a how-to, is nevertheless one of those literary compendiums. A Little History of Literature is a new addition to the Little Histories series. Kick-started by Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, these books are aimed at general readers in search of an introduction by an expert in that field. Sutherland has the chops for the job, and has demonstrated with his last books an aptitude and predilection for skimming and condensing. Once we have accepted that this history is potted—a skin-deep crash-course rather than a rigorous in-depth study—then we can find much to enjoy.

One particular pleasure is Sutherland’s voice: impassioned without boiling over, instructively outlining instead of preachily prescribing. In his introductory “What is Literature?” chapter, he is quick to stress that his book is not a manual urging us to read this and disregard that. It is advice to sift, pore over, and weigh up, with a view to us deciding for ourselves. Such a caveat is welcoming after having been force-fed the western canon by certain others. Sutherland moves on to define his bailiwick: literature is “the human mind at the very height of its ability to express and interpret the world around us.” At its best, literature “does not simplify, but it enlarges our minds and sensibilities to the point where we can better handle complexity—even if, as is often the case, we don’t entirely agree with what we’re reading.”

We can’t fault Sutherland this definition, and his last point about readers profiting from literature while not “agreeing” with what they are reading makes for a crucial disclaimer. That said, it is unfortunate that there are no notes of dissent on Sutherland’s part throughout his history. The books he lists and describes are tried-and-tested classics and thus unimpeachable. Doubtless Sutherland doesn’t “agree” with great swathes of what he has read; and yet he has no unkind words to say, no scathing, boat-rocking pronouncements to dislodge an author from the canon or incite charges of heresy. Indeed, the boldest statement we get is in answer to a preliminary question: “Why read literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can.” Here is the only occasion in which a catch can be heard in Sutherland’s otherwise finely modulated voice: not content with responding to a weighty question with a sweeping statement, he abandons all objectivity for fervent partisanship.

To be fair to Sutherland, he is constrained by space. Each of his 40 chapters, which range from Homer and Virgil to e-books and the future of literature, averages only six pages. Sutherland cuts and crams facts and opinions into his tight confines. Some chapters are organized around movements, genres, and themes; others devote their pages to a sole writer. Sutherland could have benefitted from spending a little bit more time with, say, Shakespeare, whose chapter offers the most fleeting of looks at ‘”the greatest writer in the English language.” Pages are squandered on Shakespeare’s famously sketchy biographical details, which in the end stymies Sutherland from satisfactorily answering his question of how Shakespeare came to be universally recognized as great. Brisk tours through the comedies, tragedies, and histories (but no mention of the late tragicomedies), and a perfunctory mention of the sonnets are top-heavy on facts and light on analysis. If literature helps us “better handle complexity,” then Shakespeare, Sutherland’s king of the crop, is sure to routinely thwart our aim, for “he is not, taken in the round, the easiest or the most comfortable.” A far too pat conclusion closes the proceedings: “That, of course, is part of the greatness.”

Such side-stepping will frustrate newcomers in search of elucidation, or at the very least a fuller picture. There is also the question of how much of a crutch Sutherland’s undergraduates require. Clusters of prefatory tags (“the ancient Greek philosopher Plato”) alternate with definitions of standard tropes and devices. And then there is this supposedly vital clarification: “‘Children’s Literature’ (written, one should note, for children, not by them).”

For the non-greenhorn, though, there is fun to be had in the smattering of fearless, at times audacious, assertions. Tragedy, for Sutherland, “has never been done better than when Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and other ancient Greek dramatists did it.” William Tyndale, “author” of the King James Bible, has an equal standing to that of Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde’s literary achievements, “viewed objectively, are not overwhelmingly impressive.” Don Quixote is a “proto-novel,” not a real novel. John Clare and Ezra Pound are two of the very greatest poets. And after an enlightening treatise in miniature on the nature of epics, Sutherland argues that Luxembourg, Monaco, and even the multi-national European Union would be unable to create epic literature.

Sutherland also turns his attention to the United States. Despite its wealth of great literature, and the much-vaunted claim that Moby Dick is the American Epic, Sutherland doubts there has been an epic, believing that “the USA may have come too late on the world scene ever to have one. A real one, that is. It still tries.” Moby Dick as the Great American Novel or the American Epic or both belongs to a different discussion, as does the question of whether an American epic can materialize any time soon. What is more significant, however, is the way America is only loosely referenced. Once again, this is a “little” history, and there is much to pack in, but American literature is a key casualty. In the chapter entitled “New Lands: America and the American Voice” Sutherland tries to compress 400 years into his six pages. He might have been more successful if he hadn’t used up one and a bit of them on Anne Bradstreet. Hawthorne and Melville receive a desultory nod and a wink. The America chapter is sandwiched between one chapter on Tennyson and another on Hardy. Whitman is made to share a chapter, lumped in with Proust, Wilde, and Baudelaire, in which he is allotted a mere paragraph.

Of course, any compilation of literature distilled into short, barely workable space is sure to elicit cries of protest at what has been crudely glossed and scantly adumbrated. But lack of room can seriously cramp Sutherland’s style. He alights on the debate concerning Shakespearean authorship and declares that other candidates have been suggested, but then promptly veers away with a stark, no-nonsense yet frustratingly unsubstantiated rebuttal. “None of the ‘alternative Shakespeares’ is, however, plausible.” More vexing than the short-shrift mentions are the flat-out omissions. A chapter on the metaphysical poets is four-fifths Donne to one-fifth Herbert, with Marvell failing to get a look-in. Austen’s novels, we are told, “are not, it is clear, in the same league as Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” and thus ends Tolstoy’s contribution to the book and, it would seem, world literature. Most writers appear in this way, their names referred to only in passing, usually to illustrate a point or to compare and contrast with a bigger fish. That one line merits a single page reference for Tolstoy in the index. Pope, Wharton, Nabokov, and Updike, to name only a handful, fail to register at all.

On the plus side, Sutherland’s coverage of his single-chapter subjects whittles messy lives and oeuvres down to the bare essentials. These chapters also see Sutherland refining his prose from mere descriptive to more emotive. “Hardy was persuaded by Darwin, but it hurt him,” he writes. “He pictured his hurt beautifully.” The final chapter on the future of the book glides from commentary on the status quo (technology governing and shaping literary production and consumption; how a previous shortage of books has led to the “too-muchness of literature” and a sheer “embarrassment of choice”) to intriguing predictions including “bionic literature,” multi-sensorial books as prophesied in Huxley’s Brave New World, whereby we become less readers and more “participants.” We could argue that we have already made the first steps. Interactive literature is among us. Readers need no longer be passive consumers but active co-operators.

A Little History of Literature is, then, a breezy whistle-stop tour of literature’s past and present, with a sneak peek at the future tacked on as a thought-provoking coda. Sutherland’s sustained neutrality is remarkable; nowhere does he cut down to size overrated greats or sing the praises of his literary pin-ups. Lionel Trilling routinely hailed Hemingway and Faulkner, F.R. Leavis venerated D.H. Lawrence. James Wood reminds us again and again that Flaubert invented realism and Bloom that Shakespeare invented us. All we get from Sutherland is his quiet declaration that Vanity Fair is his desert-island read, despite having read it a hundred times. The eulogy ends before it begins and Thackeray is barely alluded to again, let alone revered. It is Dickens that is heralded as the Eminent Victorian—“the finest British novelist ever to have put pen to paper”—and as Sutherland lists the reasons why, two interesting conclusions emerge: firstly, it is easier to explain the greatness of Dickens, the “Great Inimitable,” than Shakespeare, “the greatest writer”; and secondly, a love of and deep belief in literature, does not necessitate that our favorite book be written by one of its major-league greats.

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At certain junctures we are tempted to take Sutherland to task for spreading himself too thin. But we check ourselves after checking the title. We should save our ire for next year’s How to be Well Read when we can debate how many of the 412 novels under discussion deserve to be so, and just how much the reading public really needs another literary how-to book. For the moment it seems churlish to knock an innocuous little history for its essential brevity and its inevitable lacunae. Sutherland never sets out to be all-embracing and his biographical trivia, thumbnail sketches of immortal characters and synopses of cornerstone classics edify and charm and reinforce the fact that his book is if not an academic manual then at least a back-to-basics primer.

Sartre, in What is Literature?, insisted that the writer ought always to “engage.” Sutherland does exactly that throughout a book which, quickly and concisely, both answers Sartre’s question and showcases its subject’s many joys.