Farzaneh Doosti

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Farzaneh Doosti
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The Art of Literary Research

The Art of Literary Research

American scholar Richard Daniel Altick’s The Art of Literary Research (1963) is the second of a trilogy and is written after The Scholar Adventurers (1950) and before Diction And Style in Writing (1967). Despite its promising title, the book is, however, only tantalizing the reader. It embarks on two seemingly new premises concerning any process of literary research. One is that “this patterning [of facts] is a hypothesis, a line of relationship which may or may not prove to be true.” The explication of the hypothesis testing process is enlightening in its simple directness and illustration and should be a useful jumping-off place for those who direct students’ research efforts. The second idea is that writing of research is a real problem with real publishers and readers who have real problems to solve and that the quality of the writing may even overcome shortcomings of content. These ideas might now sound truistic yet hackneyed four decade after its conception for twenty-first century readers most of which have acquired computer literacy and are used to technology and google-based research with peerless facilities to access almost every edition of a text or whatever work written or published on a subject matter with just a click on a library database. Nevertheless, what Altick is emphasizing here is, beyond techniques of research, towards the spirit of scholarship which he defines as a never-ending process of skepticism: “Good researchers are, by virtual definition, thoroughgoing skeptics” (24).

The nonacademic reader curious about what literary scholars do will find answers to many of her questions in the first four chapters and the last. Early in the book Altick makes it clear that his concern is going to be with "the quest for truth in places outside the literary work" (p. 4), the conventional province of the literary scholar as distinguished from the critic, whose "business is primarily with the literary work itself" (p. 3). With the way thus cleared he proceeds with his discussion of attitudes and techniques.

In the first chapter, “Vocation,” we see the literary scholar as possessing a genuine love for literature as art, a vivid sense of history joined to the various methods of recovering historical fact, and a creative imagination capable of fusing these external findings into a critical synthesis. He goes on to define a good scholar as one zealous about accuracy and detail – which could be sharpened through practices of journalism and law education. He goes on to mention that a good scholar “must be an insatiable reader” with “vivid sense of history”; he should be “intimate, penetrating, yet detached” and concludes that

One can be a researcher, full of knowledge, without also being a scholar. Research is the means, scholarship the end; research is an occupation, scholarship is a habit of mind and a way of life. (20)

Chapters II and III, “The Spirit of Scholarship” and “Some Scholarly Occupations,” present examples designed to show the need of avoiding such fallacies and oversights as unwarranted generalization, unwarranted specification, failure to allow for prejudice and emotional distortion in the sources, unhistorical or oversimplified reading of language, and the attribution of modern judgments to another age (pp. 114-17). The examples are drawn from various areas: the detection and eradication of biographical error, textual study, problems of authorship, the search for origins, tracing reputation and influence, and cultivating a sense of the past. Chapter II is almost a repetition of the previous running theme: “Be sure of your facts – and if in the slightest doubt, take another look” (54). Chapter III is rather rooted in the long-held American New Criticism and its ‘close reading’ tradition and its side-effects on a scholarly research. Following I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929) and “how deeply readers’ judgments of a poem are affected by their knowledge of its author”, Altick attempts to emphasize the positive aspects of “an  ineradicable and  perfectly valid desire to know what fellow man or woman created the work that has attracted our attention and we want to know more intimately” (88).

Perhaps the most practical advice in the book, the concluding part of the third chapter addresses some of the most common errors of  literary-historical study or ‘fallacies’: (1) Unwarranted generalization, “[t]he instinctive preference most minds have for simplicity and uniformity when coping with large concepts or tendencies tempts us to make sweeping statements and unqualified assumptions where no such easy reductions are permissible;” (2) Unwarranted specification, “that of mistaking for a novelty, a unique peculiarity at a given period, or in one author, what was in fact a commonplace of thought with a long previous history;” (3) Failure to allow for prejudice and emotional distortion in the sources, “it is the scholar’s business to cultivate a knowledge of historical situation and person that will facilitate detection of whatever partisanship or animosity, selfseeking or championship of cause, lurks in a superficially objective document;” (4) Unhistorical or oversimplified reading of language; and finally (5) The attribution of modern judgments to another age. “In reconstructing the attitudes and responses an event (or a poem) would likely have evoked in its time, we must exclude any reaction of our own insofar as it is conditioned by the time and place in which we live.

Norton & Company released the fourth edition of Altick’s The Art of Literary Research in 1993, that is, three decades after its debut publication. The fourth edition’s setup was completely different from the first one, with added chapters and materials. As Altick has truly noticed, “there once was a time when a scholar could carry all the bibliographical information needed under his or her hat. But the good old days ended at least three-quarters of a century ago” (156). The practicing literary scholar, at whatever level of experience, might have benefitted from study of Chapters IV-VIII in the 1990s and must have even be impressed by the prophecy of a New Computer Age and its impact on literary research; modern readers would not. Chapters V and VI, “Finding Materials” and “Libraries” discuss general reference works and library resources.

The chapters entitled “Making Notes” and “The Philosophy of Composition” are full of advice on recording the results of research and on writing up one's findings. Among the most useful advices are: (a) always type. You save an incalculable amount of time, and your notes will always be legible; (b) Slips are preferable to cards; (c) For every book and article you consult, make out a bibliographical (three-by-five) slip; (d) make a slip for every bibliography you have consulted, so that you can later be sure that you have not inadvertently overlooked it; (e) Every slip should be devoted to a single topic, perhaps a very small subtopic – with a caption; (f) It is substance, not wordage, that you want for your slips. Therefore, use meaningful compressed phrases with abbreviations; (g) Avoid plagiarism: enclose every phrase or sentence you copy in quotation marks; and (h) Quotations must be made from the source that is closest to the author – the book in which the passage first appeared or, in the case of manuscripts that are themselves unavailable, the most authoritative printed text.

The final chapters “The Philosophy of composition” and “The Scholar’s Life” then depart from technical issues of research towards more tangible everyday life experiences of a scholar, his or her ultimate goal of research and what language should be applied to mean what s/he means and conveys the message better. The golden rule emphasized in these chapters is the meaning of every sentence should be unmistakably clear on first reading. Altick says “what the scholar is obliged not to borrow is their ‘crit-speak,’ drawn from the ponderous special vocabularies of epistemology, sociology, psychology, psychoanalysis, neo-Marxism, semiotics, structural anthropology, communication theory, and linguistics” (221). Altick’s wonderful examples of various critical texts further are exactly what a novice scholar needs to see in order to avoid or to model on.

 In addition to the text, Altick has supplied a highly selective list of further readings (pp. 259-79), and a most impressive group of exercises (pp. 281-331). The exercises are divided into ten categories, and their difficulty ranges from the simple and mechanical to the highly complex. Some of the exercises may be assigned as they are, but many more will serve as models of various kinds to the thoughtful teacher.

All in all, R D Altick has written an admirable book which still – after many decades – has something in store to teach us. However in the first place, as he tries to stave off the advance of the machine he begins to lose contemporary readers for whom the machine and the internet are hackneyed concepts. A second problem, since Altick makes it clear that he is concentrating on the external aspects of literary study, the “scholarly” rather than the “critical.” Nonetheless one cannot help wishing for a few pages addressed directly to that not uncommon type of beginning graduate student from the small college, who has never been prepared to become a scholar with passion for historical studies. The last but not the least failure concerns Altick’s intended addressee – the young American graduate and by no means an international reader who may have no access to American libraries and bibliographical assets, hence making the mid-chapters almost useless and impractical for a foreign English student or scholar.


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