Literature in English

The title of this course, An Introduction to Literature in English, might suggest that literature in English is a homogeneous whole. This, however, is by no means the case. Literature in English in fact consists of various national literatures, such as Irish literature, English literature, American literature, Australian literature, Indian-English literature and so on. Within some national literatures, moreover, there exist different minority literatures, such as African-American literature, Hispanic-American literature, women’s literature, gay and lesbian literature and so on. All these literatures, of course, are written in English and the common language connects them to the same tradition, so that they can be treated – at least on the level of an Introduction like this – as a whole. On the other hand, however, it would be a gross oversight – even in an Introduction like this – to ignore the fact that beyond the common language different national and minority literatures in English have their own traditions, literary histories, characteristic themes, forms and conventions which are quite distinct from each other.

I. National literatures

If an author writes literature in English, they write it both against the background of all the literature written in English and, often more importantly, against the background of their own national identity and literary tradition. An awareness of the national identity of the author and of the tradition in which she/he is writing is thus often indispensable if you want to understand a literary work of art. Even such universally valid and prized masterpieces as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children are, for example, impossible to understand without a thorough awareness of the authors’ national identities and their relation to their national literatures. In an Introduction like this it is, of course, impossible to give a detailed account of each national literature in English. We only draw attention here to the necessity of considering this aspect when reading a piece of literature, and we give a rough outline of the various literatures in English with a few links to websites where you can find out more about each.

Before we do this, however, we need to give a word of warning. As has been said, the distinction between different national literatures in English is based on the national identity of the authors who write those literatures. National identity, however, is not a simple matter at all and therefore this distinction is not always easy to make. Some authors, for example, have double identities. Jonathan Swift’s parents were English but he was born, brought up and lived most of his life in Ireland. Thus, although he was born English, he adopted an Irish identity, too. Similarly, Henry James and Thomas Stearns Eliot were born American but adopted a British identity when they left the United States to settle in England and, ultimately, to become British citizens. Another problem with national literatures is that very often authors of strong and unambiguous national identities write their work for audiences of a different nationality. Sir Walter Scott’s novels, for example, were addressed to English audiences as well as to his fellow Scotsmen and, similarly, Salman Rushdie published his novels primarily for a British readership. These works had a great impact on English literature and belong to it just as much as they belong to their own national literatures.

Below we list national literatures in English in three groups: traditional, post-colonial and other.

1. Traditional national literatures in English

The first group of national literatures in English comprises basically the literatures of the British Isles: English literature, Irish literature, Scottish literature and Welsh literature. Because of their political conflicts and struggles these nations have long been firmly established as distinct from each other but for centuries they have shared English as a common language. Although they all possess their own local varieties of the language, English has been the mother tongue of most citizens belonging to these nations at least since the time national identity became an issue. It was roughly at the end of the 18th century that national identity really began to matter and thus it was at this time, too, that these nations began to discover their national past and started to perceive their national literature as distinct from other national literatures. To the past of these national literatures belongs a body of literary texts in the ancient Celtic languages of these nations; however, since the time of the formation of their national identities most of their literature has been written in English.

Among these national literatures we could also list the literature of the United States. Although the US is a much younger country than England or Ireland, it gained its independence exactly at the time when national identities were beginning to be formed in Europe (the Declaration of Independence dating from 1776). Thus, in a sense, the American nation is as old as the English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh nation and its distinct literary tradition is also coeval with those of the above countries even though the past that it goes back to is relatively shorter.

To find out more about these national literatures you will find the following websites useful:

Irish literature (there are plenty of websites but the following two are very comprehensive and highly recommended):

Irish Literature, Mythology, Folklore and Drama
Irish Literature at the website Island Ireland

Scottish literature is much less well represented on the web than Irish literature. However, Wikipedia offers a useful overview of Scottish Literature , and there is also a comprehensive list of Scottish Authors with biographical information and a timeline.

Welsh literature: We recommend this Introduction to Welsh Literature

As to English and American literatures, there are so many good websites about them that it would be unfair to give any selection.

2. Postcolonial literatures

A second group of literatures in English could be post-colonial literatures, that is to say, the literatures of those nations that were formerly colonies of the British Empire. As through the 19th century and even at the beginning of the 20th century the British Empire was the greatest world power and contained the largest number of colonies, post-colonial literatures in English are numerous. To give just the most important post-colonial countries where significant English language literature has been and is being produced we could mention: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the countries of the Indian Subcontinent (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), Malta, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Caribbean countries (Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Antigua, Dominica), and African countries (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Senegal, Congo).

British colonies were formed in these different countries in very different ways. In some cases, for example, they were established by white settlers, that is, by British people who went to live in these countries. In other cases the British Empire was represented in the colonized countries only by temporarily stationed officials. Besides, the native cultures the colonists found there were also very different in each country. As a result, the interaction between British culture and the native culture took place in different forms in each case and thus there are virtually as many different post-colonial literatures in English as there are countries. However, these literatures have many things in common, too. Most notably the basic situation of a hierarchical arrangement of cultures involving a superordinate central culture (that of the colonists) and a subordinate peripheral culture (that of the colonized). Therefore, the dynamics of centre and periphery, the periphery’s growing consciousness of the arbitrariness of its subordinate position and the struggle to break from this position are lingering themes of all post-colonial literatures.

Note that Ireland and the United States were also colonies of England and their literatures in many ways reflect typical post-colonial patterns. However, they also differ significantly from the countries listed above: the United States because it had gained its independence much earlier than other colonies and itself participated in the ‘new imperialism’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Ireland because it had had a much longer history of conflict with Britain and a much longer tradition of English language literature than any of the other post-colonial countries mentioned above. For these reasons we have here included these literatures among ‘traditional literatures in English’.

Note also that the term post-colonial is usually used in a broader sense than is suggested above. As Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin define it, it covers ‘all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’. Thus what is referred to as post-colonial studies is a kind of cross-cultural criticism that deals with ‘the world as it exists during and after the period of European imperial domination and the effects of this on contemporary literatures’.

If you want to find out more about post-colonial literatures, we recommend this web-site as a starting point: Contemporary Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature in English.

You can also find an interesting discussion about the problems in connection with the term “post-colonial” on the following website: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/anglophone/postcolonial.html

3. Other literatures in English

Over the past decades English has become a kind of lingua franca, a language used as a common means of communication in nearly every part of the world. Thus English is taught and spoken in a great number of countries where British or American political power never played a central role at all. Literature in English is often produced in these countries as well. An example of Hungarian literature in English could be the selection of original literature by the students of Pázmány Péter Catholic University originally published in Ishmael Reed’s web-journal, Vines, and subsequently as a separate book (Somló Ágnes and Vass Nóra (ed.) Válogatás a Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem bölcsészhallgatóinak írásaiból. A selection of new writing from arts students of Pázmány Péter Catholic University, 2004).

II. Minority Literatures

Minority literatures include the literatures of ethnic minorities (especially in the United States), such as African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, American Indian, and Jewish American literatures.

If you want to find out more about the English language literatures of ethnic minorities a good starting point would be this website: Minority Literatures.

In addition, we could also include here the literatures based on sexual identity. These literatures fall into two basic subcategories: (1) women’s literature which is dealt with by women and gender studies, and (2) gay, lesbian, transgendered etc. literature treated by queer studies.

For your internet research on these literatures you might start out from these websites:

Women and gender studies
Queer studies