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Classic literature

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Classic literature

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, an example of a "classic book"

A classic is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, either through an imprimatur such as being listed in any of the Western canons or through a reader's own personal opinion. The term itself is closely related to Western Canon and to various college/university Senior Comprehensive Examination Reading Lists. What makes a book "classic" is a concern that has occurred to various authors ranging from Italo Calvino to Mark Twain and the related questions of "Why Read the Classics?" and "What Is a Classic?" have been essayed by authors from different genres and eras (Calvino, T. S. Eliot, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve). The ability of a classic book to be reinterpreted, to seemingly be renewed in the interests of generations of readers succeeding its creation, is a theme that is seen in the writings of literary critics including Michael Dirda, Saint-Beuve and Ezra Pound.

Modern definitions

In the 1980s Italo Calvino said in his essay "Why Read the Classics?" that "a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say" and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says (italics in the original translation): "Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him."[Note 1][1][2][3][4] Consideration of what makes a literary work a classic is for Calvino ultimately a personal choice, and, constructing a universal definition of what constitutes a Classic Book seems to him to be an impossibility, since, as Calvino says "There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics."[5]

What actually makes a work of literature a "classic book" is not just a consideration of extensively published authors. In 1920, Fannie M. Clark, a teacher at the Rozelle School in East Cleveland, Ohio, predates Calvino's similar conclusions by 60 years when she also essayed the question of what makes a book a "classic" in her article "Teaching Children to Choose" in The English Journal.[6]

Over the course of her essay Clark considers the question of what makes a piece of literature a classic and why the idea of "the classics" is important to society as a whole. Clark says that "teachers of English have been so long trained in the 'classics' that these 'classics' have become to them very much like the Bible, for the safety of which the rise of modern science causes such unnecessary fears."[6] She goes on to say that among the sources she consulted was a group of eighth-graders when she asked them the question: "What do you understand by the classics in literature?" Two of the answers Clark received were "Classics are books your fathers give you and you keep them to give to your children" and "Classics are those great pieces of literature considered worthy to be studied in English classes of high school or college". Calvino agrees with the Ohio educator when he states "Schools and universities ought to help us understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite." Clark and Calvino come to a similar conclusion that when a literary work is analyzed for what makes it 'classic', that in just the act of analysis or as Clark says "the anatomical dissection",[6] the reader can end up destroying the unique pleasure that mere enjoyment a work of literature can hold.

While blogging on the website in 2009, Chris Cox echoes Twain's "classic" sentiments of 1900 and Bennett's witticism about classic books when he opined on the Guardian.Co "Books Blog" that there are actually two kinds of "classic novels": The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation... The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we've read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: "You have to read this. It's a classic."[7]


The terms "classic book" and "Western Canon" are closely related concepts that can confuse the student of literature but that are not necessarily each identical with the other. "Western canon" refers to a list of books considered to be "essential" and is presented in a variety of ways. It can be published as a collection (such as Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics, Modern Library, Everyman's Library, Great Books of the Western World), presented as a list of books with an academic’s imprimatur (such as Harold Bloom's)[8] or be the official reading list of an institution of higher learning (such as St. John's College Academic Program "The Reading List"[9] or Rutgers University's "Reading List: Senior Comprehensive Examination").[10]

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve
In 1850 Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869)[11] stated his answer to the question "What is a Classic?" ("Qu'est-ce qu'un classique?"):[12] The idea of a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures…. A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.

In this same essay Sainte-Beuve quoted Goethe (referring to the 'classics' concept): "Ancient works are classical not because they are old, but because they are powerful, fresh, and healthy."[Note 2][13]

The concept of 'the classic' was a theme of T.S. Eliot's literary criticism as well. In The Sacred Wood he thought that one of the reasons "Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius" because of "the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy".[14] (In commenting about Eliot's influence, Professor Jan Gorak stated that "the idea of a canon has become intertwined with the idea of the classic, an idea that T.S. Eliot tried to revitalize for the 'modern experiment'".)[15] In echoes of Sainte-Beuve, Eliot gave a speech to the Virgil Society concerning himself with the very same question of "What is a Classic?"[16] In his opinion there was only one author who was 'classic': "No modern language can hope to produce a classic, in the sense I have called Virgil a classic. Our classic, the classic of all Europe, is Virgil."[17]

In this instance, though, Eliot said that the word had different meanings in different surroundings and that his concern was with "one meaning in one context". He states his focus is to define only "one kind of art" and that it does not have to be "better...than another kind". His opening paragraph makes a clear distinction between his particular meaning of classic having Virgil as the classic of all literature and the alternate meaning of classic as "a standard author".[18]

Literary figures from different eras have also weighed in (sometimes humorously) on the matter. Alan Bennett, the modern English playwright and author, said that "Definition of a classic: a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves."[19] Mark Van Doren, the Columbia University professor and poet, is quoted by Jim Trelease (in his library-monograph Classic Picture Books All Children Should Experience), as saying that "A classic is any book that stays in print".[20] And in his "Disappearance of Literature" speech given over a century ago in 1900, Mark Twain said, (referring to a learned academic's lofty opinion of Milton's "Paradise Lost") that the work met the Professor's definition of a classic as "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read".[21] Clifton Fadiman thought that the works that become classic books have their start in childhood, saying that "If you wish to live long in the memory of men, you should not write for them at all. You should write what their children will enjoy."[22] In his view the works we now judge to be classics are "great starters". Fadiman unites classic books through the ages in a continuum (and concurs with Goethe's thoughts on the vigor and relevance of the ancient Classics), when he states that classic books share a "quality of beginningness" with the legendary writer of the Iliad and the OdysseyHomer himself.[23] Ezra Pound in his own tome on reading, ABC of Reading, gave his opinion as "A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rule, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness."[24] Michael Dirda, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning critic, concurred with Pound's view regarding the vitality of a classic when he wrote that " of the true elements of a classic" was that "they can be read again and again with ever-deepening pleasure."[25]


An example of one type of "Classic Book" imprimatur

Publishing houses (i.e. Franklin Library, Easton Press and Folio Society) and colleges/universities (such as Oxford University Press and Yale University Press) are at times in the business of classic books. Publishers have their various types of ‘classic book’ lines, while universities and colleges have "required reading lists" as well as associated publishing interests. If these books are the works of literature that well-read people are supposed to have read or at least be familiar with, then the genesis of the classic book genre and the processes through which texts are considered for selection (or not) is of interest. The development of the Penguin Classic line of books, among the most well-known of the classic imprints, can serve as an example.

Penguin Books, the parent company of Penguin Classics, had its inception during the 1930s when the founder, Alan Lane, was unable to find a book he actually wanted to read while at Exeter train station. As the company website tells it, "appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores."[26]

Sir Alan, in speaking of Penguin Books, is quoted on the company's website that "We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public and staked everything on it."[27] Within the first year, they had sold 3 million paperbacks of then-contemporary authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie and Andre Maurois.[27]

The 'Classic Book' reading lists now in use at some universities[9][10] have been in modern vogue since at least the early part of the 20th Century with the additional impetus in 1909 of the Harvard Classics publishing imprimatur having individual works being chosen by outgoing Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot.[28][29] The vogue for these "Reading Lists" has continued onto the 21st Century, Jane Mallison's "Book Smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days"[30] (from 2007) being one example of the longevity of the concept.


  1. ^ The essay "Why Read the Classics?" is available in two different anthologies. It was first published in 1980/82 in the Italian as a chapter in "The Uses of Literature" (in 1986 in the English translation) and then re-published in the posthumous collection titled "Why Read the Classics?"
  2. ^ Saint-Beuve's "What is a Classic" essay was originally published in Le Constitutionnel on October 21, 1850 as Qu'est-ce qu'un classique?—Lundis("Monday"),Volume III, 40. (Moeller-Sally, Stephen. "Gogol's afterlife: the evolution of a classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia". Page 168, Evanston , Illinois. Northwestern University Press, 2002.) However it originated, an error regarding the date of Saint-Beauve's "What Is a Classic?" has crept into some sources. According to historical calendars , Monday October 21 had to be the year 1850, not 1860. The year is erroneously stated as 1860 in A. Pichon's edition of Saint Beuve's work in "Causeries Du Lundi Et Portraits Littraires" (republished in 2009 in its entirety by BiblioBazaar/BiblioLife, LLC).


  1. ^ Calvino, Italo (1986), The Uses of Literature: Essay, Harcourt, Brace & Company, pp. 128, 130, ISBN  
  2. ^ Calvino, Italo (21 October 1987), The Uses of Literature, Mariner Books, ISBN , retrieved 2010-06-13 
  3. ^ Devlin, Paul (Fall 2003), "Review of 'Hermit in Paris' by Italo Calvino", St. John's University humanities review (St. John's University) 2 (1), retrieved 2010-06-13 
  4. ^ Brooke, Allen (Spring 2000), "Review: Calvino: Old Wine in a New Bottle", The Hudson Review (The Hudson Review, Inc.), 53, No. 1: 161–166, JSTOR 3853113 
  5. ^ Calvino, The Uses of Literature: Essays, Page 133
  6. ^ a b c Fannie Clark (1920). "Teaching children to choose". The English Journal 9 (3): 135–138. doi:10.2307/802644. 
  7. ^ Cox, Chris (2009-12-08). "The other kind of classic novel". Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-06-13. 
  8. ^ Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. Appendixes. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994. © 1994 by Harold Bloom
  9. ^ a b "St. John’s College | Academic Program | The Reading List". Retrieved 2010-06-13. 
  10. ^ a b "Reading List:Rutgers University Senior Comprehensive Examination" (PDF). 
  11. ^ Harper, George McLean. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1909.
  12. ^ Literary and Philosophical Essays. 1909–14. Vol. 32. The Harvard Classics (PDF), retrieved 2010-06-13 
  13. ^ "Introductory Note. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. 1909–1914. Literary and Philosophical Essays. The Harvard Classics". Retrieved 2010-06-13. 
  14. ^ Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood. Mineola, NY. Dover Publications, 1920, Page 92
  15. ^ Gorak, Jan. The Making of the Modern Canon. New Jersey/United Kingdom. Athlone Press Limited, 1991, Page 253
  16. ^ Eliot, T.S. Address to the Virgil Society on October 16, 1944; first published by Faber & Faber, 1945, presently available in: Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. New York.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Farrar, Straus, Giroux.1975
  17. ^ Eliot, Selected Prose. Page 130
  18. ^ Eliot, Selected Prose. Pages 115–116
  19. ^ "Alan Bennett Bio". 
  20. ^ "Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Experience" (PDF). 
  21. ^ Twain, Mark Twain's Speeches,Page 194
  22. ^ Fadiman, Clifton.Party of One, The Selected Writings of Clifton Fadiman New York. World Publishing. 1955. Page 387
  23. ^ Fadiman,Party of One, Page 42
  24. ^ ABC of Reading, Volume 0-151, New York: New Directions (2010, ©1934). Pages 13–14
  25. ^ Dirda, Michael. Bound to Please. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. Page 182
  26. ^ "Penguin Company History, US site". Penguin Books. Retrieved 2010-06-15. 
  27. ^ a b "Penguin Company History, UK site". Penguin Books. Retrieved 2010-06-15. 
  28. ^ Adam Kirsch, The "Five-foot Shelf" Reconsidered, Harvard Magazine, Volume 103, Number 2. November–December 2001
  29. ^ Public Libraries, Volume 15, 1910. Library Bureau. Chicago. Page 75.
  30. ^ Mallison, Jane. Book Smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days. New York. McGraw-Hill. 2007

External links

  • National Council of Teachers of English
  • Harold Bloom's Faculty Profile at Yale
  • Harold Bloom Bio at the Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and the Arts website
  • Ezra Pound Bio & Selected Bibliography at Poets.Org (Academy of American Poets)
  • Links to Italo Calvino writings & Critical Essays about Calvino
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