Professor Bliss Perry gave the fifth of the series of lectures for the Prospect Union yesterday afternoon, on the subject "Fashions in Literature." He said in part:
Literature rests on the love of a good book. A book is the product of the age and hour in which it is brought forth, and it reflects the passions and the feelings of the crowd. To study changing literary tastes is to approach human life in all its aspects. It takes no knowledge of philosophy to do this, because observation is all that is necessary. Literary fashions are affected by the climate, the religion and the politics of the land. Just as the fashions of a country are sometimes curious, sometimes amusing, so are the literary tastes of that country interesting.
To reduce the study of literary fashions to a scientific basis is difficult for two reasons. In the first place in literature there is no definite displacement of the lower by the higher--there is none of the unbroken evolution of a natural science; and secondly, literature is an art, and as such is subject to the individual caprice of the artist. On account of these two causes, it cannot be said at any one time that a given literary form is final.
One of the most important factors in literary fashion is that of imitation. It is one of the traits of human nature, and appears in literature not only in imitation in writing, but also in the reading of the books of the day. In literary evolution there are no laws. Action is followed by re-action, the psychological novel replaces the romantic, and is in turn displaced. There is no invariable progress. Love of novelty makes for literary progress more than any other factor.
It is useless to analyze fashions in literature as it is to dissect a man's personality. Personality defles analysis, and books follow the personalities of their authors. To understand the characteristics of a piece of writing, one must be acquainted with the prevalent styles of the time and with the politics and current history of the period under discussion.
The study of literary fashions has three great gains; it aids the sense of proportion in literature, and gives one a vivid perspective; it is an unfailing resource for a sense of humor, and it teaches the permanent value of real literary worth.