The Ever-changing State of Literary Criticism

4 min read

Posted on February 18, 2016

By Larry Trudeau

I was recently reviewing an entry on Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations for an upcoming volume of Nineteenth Century Literary Criticism (NCLC), and was surprised—delighted, really—to see that we were including two reviews of the novel from 1861, the year it was published in book form.

What’s more, there was another article from 1877, in which the reviewer recalled the experience of reading the novel as it came out in weekly installments, between December 1860 and August 1961, in Dickens’s own magazine, All the Year Round. The reviewer, Edwin P. Whipple (how’s that for a good, Victorian-sounding name?), extolled Dickens’s skill at constructing his great novel essentially on the fly, with deadlines constantly looming. “When the novel is read as a whole,” Whipple marveled, “we perceive how carefully the author had prepared us for the catastrophe; but it required feminine sagacity and insight to detect the secret on which the plot turns, as the novel first appeared in weekly parts.” (Feminine sagacity and insight—another echo from another century!)

My pleasure at seeing these early pieces was threefold. I was, frankly, rather astonished that even after the many times we have covered Dickens since his first appearance in NCLC, Volume 3 back in 1983—and in Short Story Criticism and Children’s Literature Review as well—there are still little gems like these to be discovered. Next, I felt pride in the realization that, coupled with the recent essays we are also including in the same Great Expectations entry, we are providing coverage of this deservedly honored novel that spans over 150 years in three different centuries. Finally, I was reinforced in my belief in the inexhaustible interest that great writing affords.

Even after a century and a half and thousands of reviews, articles, essays, monographs, and dissertations, there is still more to say, more to discover, more to understand about Great Expectations—and David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities, and other classic works by Dickens. And by Twain, and Shakespeare, and Vonnegut, and King, and a host of others among the over 6000 authors we have covered in Gale’s Literature Criticism Series since the first volume of Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC) was published in 1973.

Kurt Vonnegut was among the “contemporary” authors covered in that inaugural CLC volume. And so was Vladimir Nabokov, who was still alive—as was Samuel Beckett, and Pablo Neruda, and P. G. Wodehouse—who was born just 20 years after Great Expectations was written. Now, in the 21st century, we prepare entries on the Nobel Prize-winning Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, the American writer Phil Klay, Australian Richard Flanagan, and other new “contemporary” writers of what will undoubtedly become “classic” works like Great Expectations. These short reviews from 1861 remind us that Dickens, much as Suzanne Collins is today, was once a “contemporary” and extremely popular writer. And we can see that literature—and its impact on readers—constantly changes. Its interpretation continuously evolves. And as long as all this is true, Gale’s Literature Criticism Series – and, by extension, Literature Criticism Online – will continue to delve into the lives, times, and works of these amazing writers.

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Larry Trudeau

About the Author

Larry has been an editor at Gale for over 25 years, and loves doing deep research amid the library stacks. A recent vacation included a day set aside to explore the astonishing Burton Historical Collection at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library.


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