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Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure. So I’m going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one. The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write.
But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.
How did things get this way? To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years. Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call «the classics. The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system. During this essay on going to college the study of ancient texts acquired great prestige.
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It seemed the essence of what scholars did. 1350 someone who wanted to learn about science could find better teachers than Aristotle in his own era. But schools change slower than scholarship. In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum. The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern texts? The answer, of course, is that the original raison d’etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.
But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. And so began the study of modern literature. There was a good deal of resistance at first. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s. But Harvard didn’t have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885.
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