Student reading book outside on campus

Beyond the Great Books

Written by Sarah Borger

Even before I decided to major in English, I found myself delving into the realm of literary criticism. The Great Books courses had me researching scholarly sources, crafting annotated bibliographies, and learning how to integrate the material into my own papers. As I  shaped my own analyses, I realized that I was practicing my own (albeit decently clumsy) literary criticism by learning how to personally engage with the text.

Though taking the extra step to read analyses that discuss a piece of literature might seem tiresome or even frustrating, the depth that literary criticism brings to the table enhances our understanding of the original work. As Dr. Benedict Whalen explains, “Good criticism often functions like a good professor, in that it will lead you to understand something that is perhaps difficult to see.”

As I’ve moved beyond the Great Books courses, my appreciation for literary criticism has expanded. Researching scholarly articles has become less of a check-marked step in the paper process and more of an integral component of the paper’s development. I’ve figured out how to find better articles and learned that requesting books through inter-library loan pays off.

This semester I’m working on my own critical edition of Patience, one of the four poems written by the anonymous Pearl-Poet for my 400-level class with Dr. Jackson. For this project, researching and incorporating literary criticism is immensely important. As I read through article after book after essay, I see the conversation between the secondary sources and the original text develop, weaving through time without losing its anchor in this fourteenth-century poem.

However, as many of our English professors stress, literary criticism shouldn’t be the priority when studying literature. While it can make for helpful supplemental commentary, the primary text ought to be privileged. Whalen states, “As a department, we privilege the great works of art and look to the scholar to elucidate them.”

When working on my translation of Patience, I have to intentionally make the text my focus because, without loyalty to the text and an intellectual honesty in translating, it is difficult to examine scholarship through a discerning lens. Not all literary criticism is “good” literary criticism, and as students we are tasked with sorting through the mass of scholarship to find the criticism that stays loyal to the text.

The value of literary criticism as a secondary consideration (after the work itself) allows flexibility in the study of literature. We can read a book for the surface plot and indulge in the author’s artistry, or we can delve into it from an academic perspective. As Dr. Lindley relates, “Learning how to find literary criticism and building up power to do a great job the first time you read things and then figuring out where to turn if you want to pursue it further [will be] useful for the rest of your life.”

Sarah BorgerSarah Borger, ’19, is an English major.