Being an IT student comes with a lot of perks, I am sure. I bet that you can solve complex math equations, build databases, troubleshoot code, something great like that I am sure, however, I bet that this has little application in the social world. Literature makes up much of our popular culture, and you don’t want to be the one in the group who looks confused at the utterance of a literary reference, you big “phony”. See, I bet you missed what I did there.
But there is hope for you yet! Because you clicked on this post, I am sure you have an interest in the subject, and to be honest, that is the most important step into gaining knowledge.
At the end of this post you will be an expert on the world of literature. I will walk you through the periods of the world of lit so you can make references that will even make a turtle neck toting, brandy sipping, English major envious. l want to note that each of these periods that I will go over, are not exclusive. They often overlap, or even merge in most cases.
The idea here is to give you an understanding on the meaning behind these different periods. Maybe you will see one that catches your fancy and you can check out some books from the genre. Who knows! I can see that you are ready to get to the point. Let’s dive in!
These are the major periods of the lit world: Renaissance literature, The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Realism, Modernism, Bloomsbury Group, Existentialism, and the Beat Generation.
Before this period, it was all bad- think dungeons, the black death (bring out your dead!), tyrannous rule, repressed citizens- I mean just reading that makes me a bit depressed. And this went on for HUNDREDS of years. Luckily, the Renaissance period came about and shook up the world. If the dark ages were a sickly and malformed hunchback chained in a forgotten dungeon, the Renaissance period was a group of women with flowers in their hair prancing in a field. To give you some time perspective, this took place between the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. And as the Dark Ages (yes that was a real thing) ended, the gloomy world was filled with optimism, artistry, and hope.
The dominant forms of literature of this period were poetry and the drama. This drama is much better than the soap opera your aunt watches at noon, I am talking about Shakespeare here. Works during the Renaissance period were focused on the individual and perfecting the human, as we know it. These works of art still inspire us today. Unfortunately, this ever upward attitude of the period could not go on forever, and violence once again came about the world. Order was in need, and it led to the next literary period.
The Enlightenment was a major step forward for human civilization and took a more logical approach to the world, instead of the artful hippy-ness of the Renaissance period this period birthed the modern scientific method. Now I know that you lT students can relate to this one! To set the scene, at this time anything that went against the doctrinal religious leaders, was a big no-no. You could be put in jail or have your life ended, serious business.
It wasn’t until people like Newton, the father of physics, and Francis Bacon (not the food) came along and started to build the scientific method from the ground up that things started to change. Through data, observation, and confirming hypotheses, the rulers were slowly won over, and put away the guillotines. The enlightenment celebrated ideas, and made it so you and I could express our scientific ideas, without risk of persecution. Also, with all of these ideas floating around it led to a surge of literacy among the public and gave those not in power a voice. Power to the people!
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Turn down the lights, and light some candles because it is about to get….. Wait… Wrong kind of Romantic… Sadly, maybe happily this literary period isn’t all about romance and love stories (sorry all of you “Twilight” fans). This literary period was mostly concerned with the individual over society, and works of literature focused on character building, and analyzing the imagination and consciousness. Where The Enlightenment was all about logic, this again is a flip into another, less concrete, way of thinking. A novel that is the poster child of this period is the “Scarlet Letter”, which is often seen as one of the greatest literary works of our time. If you want to try something a little darker, try Edgar Allen Poe, he was one of the first to perfect the horror genre and is a must-read to those who want to become familiar with literature. lf dark isn’t your thing, Walt Whitman wrote some great poetry that was not only artful, but descriptive of the times like a vivid documentary.
Sometimes there are facts; something can be observed and written down in order to understand it. Other times, the answer may not be easily understood by the senses alone and you need to look within. Sounds a bit hokey, but that is all what this literary period is about. Sometimes it is important to get back to your roots, and get in touch with what is truly important. That is exactly what Ralph Waldo Emerson did, who was a largely influential force in the Transcendentalist movement. Emerson built a cabin with his own land, next to Walden Pond. He wanted to get in touch with nature, and spend his time living off of the land.Maybe you can’t (or don’t want to) live in the woods and survive off of the land for several years, and meditate, so luckily he wrote the books “Walden” and “Life in the Woods” where he speaks about these ideas, and lays the groundwork for environmental activism, and social justice.
It is about to get real! No really. Realism is all about painting a picture with words and bringing the reader directly into the moment. The influence of this period is seen widespread in current novels and poetry. An author of Realist works would be almost like a journalist and write down every detail of a story. But these authors wouldn’t just write down what you could discern from the outside perspective, it looked inside the character’s minds, and through internal monologue, placed you directly inside of the character’s heads. Mark Twain is one of the great American authors who falls into this literary period. The works of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” really put you into the moment of the times and are both great reads. Realism fell apart because it actually didn’t keep it real enough. It went too deep into the minds of the characters and the story plots themselves fell apart. That is when keeping it real goes wrong.
Naturalism is a direct movement which followed the Realist movement. Where Realism floated in the ideas themselves, Naturalism aimed to find reasons behind ideas and actions in a more explanatory way. The thought process behind this being that the family you are born in, the location of your family, your social status at birth, and your genes are all conditions that are very determinate of how your life is going to turn out. It is very hard to lead a prosperous life if you are born into a family in a third world country where your biggest worries are finding the next meal. Major players in this literary period were inspired by the likes of Charles Darwin who in a way developed this way of thinking through his scientific classifications of species and with that came a predisposition of classifying based off of science alone (think scientific racism, yeah not all pretty stuff here). Naturalism is this idea of Social Darwinism played out in fiction.
Novels of this time would place a heavy focus on the factors outside of the characters’ control. They would underscore the character’s social environment and use it to guide the story along. If you do not believe in fate, then this period is not for you, but I think that you would be naive to suggest that your social environment has nothing to do with the way that your life turned out (however happy or sad of an existence that you may lead). For further reading take a look into authors such as Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Crane. Ironically both Norris and Crane died before their time (could it be fate?!).
This literary period aimed to break all of the existing rules in literature. Think abstract art, or poems with breaks in structure. Sometimes it is fun to be a rebel after all, and that is exactly what those in this style of writing were, rebels with a very specific cause. They were bored with the way that everyone else was doing things, and created new ways to express themselves giving birth to the modernist movement.
Some of the greatest authors of our time were part of the Modernist period, TS Eliot, Earnest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few. These writers struggled to find meaning in this life we are living, and wrote novels that looked at class, and societal structure in a way that really made the reader wonder what life is really all about. The stories cause readers to question their own lives, and are very entertaining read because they go deeper than the story itself. If riveting stories full of glamour, and superficial fulfillment try “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, or if you are more into poetry try “Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot. These works encapsulate what this movement was about and you will NOT be disappointed. And, please, don’t just watch “The Great Gatsby” movie! Read the book!
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If the Modernist movement had you questioning what it is all for, then this literary period, Existentialism, aims to answer that question. Actually, they have an answer for you: “I think therefore I am”. Do you feel like you know the answer to life yet? No? Well sadly, some works of the existentialist movement may make you feel a bit more isolated and pointless. To be really honest, you may want to just avoid these readings, unless you are the introspective type. Philosophers, like Nietzsche, looked life in the eye and attempted to make sense of it all. Often pessimistic, this movement is very real (maybe too real?). I do not recommend reading anything from this movement if you like to feel a warm fuzzy feeling, as the saying goes ignorance is bliss. If you want to get to the bottom of the barrel and see life for what it truly is and possibly even get some answers, dive into the writings of Franz Kafka, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche (whooh those are not easy to spell out), but don’t blame me if it throws you into a deep depression (or existential crisis)..
Luckily, I will not leave you on a depressing low note. English is fun after all! The Beat Generation is rich in artistic expression, jazz, and bold color. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg formed the initial founding group of the Beatniks. To make it easy to understand Beatniks are kind of like the oG hippy. They are anti-establishment, anti-institution (fight the power!), but the beats were well educated and inspirational, as well. If a single work needed to be plucked from the pool of the Beat movement, it would be Kerouac’s “On the Road”. It is a fascinating tale full of drug influenced visions, perspectives on society, and philosophical ideas that resonate to this day, and if that doesn’t make you want to pick up an actual book and read for once, then I don’t know what will.
See! Wasn’t that easy? You are now a literary expert, and I think that you deserve a pat on the back, gold star, or maybe even a cookie! Now you can study up and drop literary references with the best. Hah! And you don’t even have to wear a turtleneck while you do it (you are welcome). So get out there and start reading some books from the periods that caught your eye, or don’t. At the very least you now have an understanding on the world of literature, and can go out into the world with some confidence.
Let me know what you think below! Thank you for reading!
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